Perspectives Online

WISE Women, Wise Choice - Living and learning community enhances program 
for women in science and 

WISE director Kathy Titus-Baker (seated, center right), with the N.C. State WISE Village team, displays the Outstanding Collaboration Partnership Award given the WISE Village program. Standing third from left is Dr. Barbara Kirby of CALS Academic Programs.
Photo by Daniel Kim

Aquick Internet search on "women in science" turns up article after article about the dwindling number of women in science and engineering jobs. News stories from across the country are filled with theories about why women are under-represented in these fields. They place blame on people, politics, even history.

But a glimmer of hope does exist: Scattered among these headlines are stories of programs throughout the country trying to address the issue.

At N.C. State, one such program is "Women in Science and Engineering," or WISE, as it's better known on campus. Operating under a "strength in numbers" philosophy, WISE aims to enhance students' academic success and develop a future workforce by providing female students with a supportive, enriching learning environment.

WISE women share a variety of guided study, social and community service activities.
Photos by Daniel Kim
To that end, N.C. State's WISE village, a living and learning community targeted to women majoring in science, mathematics or engineering, is open to first- and second-year female students in the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering, Natural Resources, Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and Textiles.

A team effort among University Housing and these five colleges, the WISE Village recently won the "Outstanding Collaboration/Partnership Award" from the National Association of College Auxiliary Services.

"We've found that women who participate in the WISE Village are retained in the sciences and engineering at a higher rate than other female students," says Kathy Titus-Becker, director of the WISE program.

With an enrollment that has more than quadrupled in just four years, WISE seems poised to help put the brakes on the downward trend of women entering professional science and engineering careers.

"When developing this program, our primary goal was to find a way for women in science to connect with each other, as well as with professionals in their fields," says Dr. Barbara Kirby, associate director of academic programs in the College. "In CALS, we have a strong number of women students in the life sciences and animal science, and we want to help them network with faculty and mentors. It's important for these students to see their potential career paths and also to learn from professionals that it is possible to balance work and family."

Based on successful national models, the WISE Village is housed in the top three floors of Lee Residence Hall on the N.C. State campus. There, students have access to a number of resources, including a library, computers and guided study programs with peer mentors, as well as a full slate of social and community-service activities.

"WISE Wednesdays," in particular, are a hit. The monthly social program is designed by the students and usually bears a theme. In October, for instance, WISE students gathered to make caramel apples for Halloween.

WISE also provides research awards, opportunities for internships and one-on-one networking experiences with area professionals.

A regular speaker series brings in College alumni, faculty and industry leaders who share perspective on the "real world." Two recent talks focused on women in robotics and the science behind alternative fuels.

All WISE freshmen are paired with upper-class student mentors who have participated in the program. And first-year students are required to attend "WISE Summer Bridge," an introductory program at the beginning of the school year that helps them acclimate to campus, meet other students and move into the dorm early.

"To kick off this year, mentors and their freshman suitemates participated in the campuswide 'Service N.C. State' project," Kirby says. "What a great way to transition to the university, have fun and contribute to the greater community."

For sophomore Karen Payne, the experience has been tremendous. She's pursuing a degree in biological sciences and plans to attend medical school. Payne wants to be a neurologist, and she says that WISE has helped accelerate her toward that goal.

"WISE teaches us that women can do anything," Payne says. "It's really important that we don't get discouraged. I hear other girls talking about being one of three females in a class of 90, and WISE helps us realize that we're not alone."

Payne, from Raleigh, serves as vice president of the Lee Hall board. In that role, she helps design programs and social activities that, in her words, "try to build a community."

"Meeting people is one of the best things about this program," Payne says. "They're all really driven women who care about school and the future. It's a great network."

This spring, she'll travel to the Dominican Republic with the university's "Alternative Spring Break" program to teach English to school children. She hopes to win one of the scholarships WISE provides for Alternative Spring Break trips.

"We have good partnerships with other campus organizations, as well as with area universities," Titus-Becker says. "We often sponsor events together and collaborate on programming."

As the number of WISE students grows, plans are in the works to develop a new programming track for sophomores, she says. "Many of the students who participated in the program as freshmen have chosen to continue living in the WISE Village, so we have a large number of sophomores this year."

Kirby adds, "Sophomores tend to be a forgotten population, but they're facing 'decision time' in their majors. As we fine-tune the sophomore experience, we hope to find ways to keep them engaged with other students, faculty and the community as they progress toward their degrees."

As Payne prepares this spring to move out of the WISE Village in Lee Hall, she says it will be difficult, but she'll be ready to take the next step, adding with a little laugh, "I guess we can't stay forever."

For information: