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CBEE's class of 2021, positively impact communities

Excerpt from UMBC News


Creative problem solver

When Princess Sara Njemanze ‘21, chemical engineering, came to UMBC as a freshman, she knew that she wanted to find opportunities to build and to support communities. She started by joining the Shriver Center’s Living Learning Community, a residential floor bringing together students focused on meaningful social change. The experience proved so significant that she remained connected to the group for four years, transitioning through roles as a peer mentor and then as a resident assistant. “It’s my life,” she says, smiling.

As she explored possibilities for her degree and career paths, Njemanze knew she enjoyed fixing problems through science and engineering and that she loved connecting with people. After meeting Vivian Armor ‘73, American studies, director of the Alex. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship, Njemanze decided to register for an entrepreneurship class. There, she got a chance to partner with students from all different majors and to come up with a product to pitch for a Shark Tank-style presentation. Before long, she added minors in both computer science and entrepreneurship to her degree.

As a France-Merrick Fellow, Njemanze worked with a group of her peers to create initiatives that work to address challenges in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. “Something that I’m really proud of that we worked on and saw the fruits was hosting a leadership program for high school students at Lansdowne High School,” she explains, adding that they asked the students to envision their ideal communities. 

The high school students came to UMBC for a day-long leadership training and created art that was displayed at OCA Mocha, a coffee shop and community gathering space in downtown Arbutus. Njemanze says the opportunity to connect with younger students was meaningful to her and impacted her UMBC experience.

During her time at UMBC, Njemanze interned at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, where she was offered a job that will begin after graduation, combining her passion for engineering and creative problem solving. Her long-term vision is creating a nonprofit to support underserved communities gain access to knowledge and skills such as financial literacy, college readiness, and leadership development. 

Finding community

Jameka Wiggins ‘21, chemical engineering, remembers when representatives from UMBC’s Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) visited her high school in Prince George’s County, Maryland. They offered a glimpse into the kind of experience she might have as a CWIT Scholar, including a tight-knit community of mutual support. She was accepted into the scholars program and says, simply, “CWIT was my community coming into UMBC. They always made sure we had a community of supporters, that we were engaged in the program, and that we felt welcome at the university.”

That community proved particularly important when Wiggins struggled with the transition to college life, worrying that she didn’t belong. Working through that challenging time motivated her to shift from focusing on lab research to engineering education itself as a career path.

During her sophomore year, Wiggins, who is also a member of the UMBC chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, decided that she wanted to gain research experience. She applied to the NSF’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, which supported her summer research on optimizing oleaginous yeast cell factories in UMBC’s chemical, biochemical, and environmental engineering department. 

The next year she accessed a very different kind of experience as a Shattuck Fellow through the UMBC Career Center and as a participant in the Maryland Technology Internship Program for Entrepreneurship. These initiatives allowed her to intern multiple semesters for the start-up Athena Environmental Sciences, with Sheldon Broedel, associate director of UMBC’s master’s in professional studies in biotechnology program.

As she was exploring these opportunities, Wiggins realized that she was not the only student who would benefit from academic support outside of the classroom. She and a group of her peers worked with the UMBC Academic Success Center to provide tutors for upper-level engineering courses. And she also began looking at career pathways in engineering that were focused on community and belonging.

Change agent

In fall 2020, Wiggins, also a McNair Scholar, began working with Jamie Gurganus, associate director of engineering education, on a project that would shape her trajectory. They conducted research on the engineering mindset and experiences of Black first-year students, including those who are and are not in scholars programs.

Wiggins and Gurganus explored how to foster a sense of community among these students, which has been demonstrated to support resilience and degree attainment. Their study found that participants experienced particular challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as isolation and difficulty finding their footing in classes.

In addition to her interest in supporting college students, Wiggins committed time to supporting younger students as well. She volunteered for the Refugee Youth Project’s College Journey Upward Mentoring Program (College JUMP), where she mentored a high school student in Baltimore City and helped her with the college admissions process. This experience led Wiggins to become a leader in the program, creating curricula for students and supporting mentors. 

She also worked with some of her peers to create the LIFT Mentoring Program, which connects upper-level students with underclassmen in the same or similar majors to support informal mentorship and guidance outside of the classroom. 

And along the way, she took on other leadership roles through UMBC’s Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Center and UMBC’s Inclusion Council.

These research, mentoring, and leadership experiences have inspired Wiggins to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering education. Her emphasis will be on developing undergraduate student support services to increase the retention and representation of underrepresented populations in engineering. “I will serve as a change agent,” she says.

Posted: May 25, 2021, 7:53 PM