|Vol. 17, No. 35||July 9, 1998|
Elbert C. Wisner, EG '52 and the first UD black engineering graduate, was the
keynote speaker at the sixth annual RISE Student Achievement Convocation.
During the sixth annual Student Achievement Convocation of the Resources to Insure Successful Engineers (RISE) Program, held May 17 in Clayton Hall, participants celebrated the 25th anniversary of RISE. Keynote speaker was Elbert C. Wisner, a member of the class of 1952 and the first African-American engineering graduate at UD. Following is an overview of the RISE Program's successful history at UD, with comments by some who have been associated with the program since its earliest days.
It's 1973. The DuPont Co. gives the University of Delaware College of Engineering a grant for minority student scholarships, and the Minority Engineering Program is born. A handful of students receive financial aid through the program as well as informal academic and social support from a small group of participating faculty.
It's 1998. The Resources to Insure Successful Engineers (RISE) Program is a full-blown career development and academic enrichment program providing some 120 students with a broad spectrum of support services designed to increase their chances of academic and professional success.
What happened between 1973 and 1998 is a story of steady growth, which can be attributed largely to the dedication of the half dozen individuals responsible for initiating and administering the program that started out as the Minority Engineering Program and later became known as RISE.
It is a story of the University sometimes swimming against the national tide but emerging with a model program. And, finally, it is a story of a peripheral program gradually being incorporated into the mainstream, representing true diversity through institutionalization.
When the Minority Engineering Program was initiated in 1973-74, Irwin G. Greenfield, now dean emeritus and Unidel Professor, had just been appointed acting dean of the College. "I remember going to meetings and listening to whites talking about minorities," he said, "and it seemed to me that we should have some minorities involved in the dialogue."
Greenfield acted on this conviction and solicited the opinions of Bob Eubank, a visiting professor in civil engineering. "He advised me that the program should be as strong as the regular program," Greenfield recalls. "He said that if it was a snap program, the good students wouldn't want to come, but if we had a quality program, we would attract quality candidates."
T. W. Fraser Russell, associate dean under Greenfield from 1974-77 and acting dean from 1978-79, administered the program during its first five years. "The critical issue was selecting students," he said. "We wanted students who had exceptional high school records so we could demonstrate success and have a group of role models that others could look to. We aimed at having a few people of high quality and monitoring them closely; our goal was to know them as individuals instead of trying to achieve statistics.
"To some extent that put us at odds with national efforts," he continued. "National organizations trying to promote minorities in engineering wanted to see programs that included large numbers of students. But I think our approach was better in the long run-the University of Delaware has one of the top-ranked programs of this kind in the nation today."
Jon Olson became associate dean in 1978 and took over the program. "During this period, we began to realize the importance of support services," Olson said, "and activities like tutoring and counseling became more formal. Counselors helped with social concerns, and retention rates improved, although they still did not equal those of non-minority students. What I found was that when students supported each other, they did very well. I remember in particular a group of students in the Class of 1981 who were very successful, and I think it was because they competed with each other."
These social concerns were a very real issue; a 1973 study by the GE Foundation on why students of color were not persisting in math and science had found that this trend had little to do with academic ability or preparedness but instead resulted largely from a sense of isolation.
In 1983, the program entered a new era, including a name change. As Greenfield pointed out, "We didn't graduate minority engineers or women engineers, just engineers, and we wanted the name to reflect that." The University hired Terry M. Whittaker as the first full-time director to administer the program, and Whittaker came up with the new name, which took the emphasis away from the minority aspect of the program and shifted it to the provision of resources to insure success.
Under Whitaker, the program grew rapidly, in terms of both the number of students participating and the level of services provided.
In 1983, 5 percent of the college's total enrollment was minority; by 1987, minority enrollment had increased to about 13 percent in the college. The DuPont Co. continued to provide funding, but Whittaker also solicited financial support from other companies that hire engineers. In addition, he solidified the relationship between RISE and FAME, a Delaware pre-college program.
The fundamental services that were initiated during Whittaker's era-including scholarships, special academic advisement, tutoring, mentoring, counseling and professional development-have remained at the core of the RISE program and been augmented over the years since then. "We found that the trick was personal contact with the students and strong parental involvement," Whittaker said. "It was also important to establish a partnership among the minority community, the school system and the corporate community."
One of the greatest indicators of the success of the RISE Program during this era was its use as a model for similar programs formed at the University in other disciplines, including ASPIRE in education, Fortune 2000 in business, and NUCLEUS in arts and science. Whittaker started the Fortune 2000 Program and is now assistant dean in the College of Business and Economics.
The second full-time director of RISE was Frank A. Wells, Jr.
Wells came to the University in 1987 when the College of Engineering began to focus on increasing the number of RISE-eligible students. Wells had formerly been employed by PRIME, Inc. pre-college awareness program of greater Philadelphia.
In the early years of his five-year tenure, he developed a strong feeder relationship between RISE and PRIME that remains viable. Wells is credited with narrowing the gap between pre-college engineering awareness and college-level access. He left the University in early 1992, but his mark, as well as those of his predecessors had a lasting effect on the college and the RISE Program.
Ronald F. Whittington, who then served as the assistant to the president, assumed the role of interim RISE director until a new director could be identified. Whittington's broad charge was to "keep everything together" and "maintain the momentum" until permanent leadership was in place.
That is exactly what he accomplished-his efforts to continue services to students promoted a more seamless transition to the next administration.
RISE has continued to evolve and develop under the current program director, Michael L. Vaughan. According to Vaughan, who joined the University in 1992 as assistant dean and director, three developments have had a significant impact on the program in recent years.
The first was changing the physical space to centralize the program through a tangible suite of RISE offices. "This made a big difference to the students," Vaughan pointed out. "Before we had our own offices, students waiting for appointments had to sit in the hall outside the Dean's Office, which in some cases could have a stigmatizing effect."
Second, it was under Vaughan that the RISE program attracted its first major grant from a major government funding source: a grant from the National Science Foundation that is providing significant enhancements to academic support, programming and staffing. In addition to this $375,000 grant, Vaughan has raised over $1million in external support for the program.
The NSF grant enabled RISE to hire its first full-time professional (besides the director), add academic counselors and an engineering tutorial program, expand the mentoring program for freshman, and leverage support for RISE undergraduate research.
With regard to the latter, NSF's selection of the University to receive an NSF Research Award for the Integration of Research and Education (RAIRE) in 1996 provided the opportunity to integrate RISE undergraduates research with that of UD as a whole.
"Our goal is to institutionalize all RISE services rather than keep them separate," said Vaughan, "and RAIRE provided the opportunity for us to do that in the area of undergraduate research."
Third, RISE has been placed in a larger context, with Vaughan assuming responsibility for engineering student affairs, a change that has had a broadening effect on the college. "RISE is still our most focused effort," said Vaughan, "but we're ultimately concerned with supporting all students and faculty in ways that promote success. For 25 years, RISE has served as a wonderful educational experiment involving a subset of our students-what we've found is that what's good for RISE students is good for students in general; we're finding new ways to support students as active learners, enabling them to reach their full potential."
Vaughan's vision for the program was to move to the next level of formal implementation, including securing external funding and building relationships with external and internal constituencies. In addition to the establishment of a discrete physical facility, securing of the NSF funding and broadening of the leadership position, he has set up industrial and faculty advisory committees and is about to initiate a student advisory council as "the third leg of a RISE administrative feedback mechanism to stay on course in a new millennium."
Despite these successes and demonstrations of progress, the RISE program faces some obstacles as that new millennium nears. The first, according to Vaughan is the national climate surrounding affirmative action. He emphasizes that RISE is not affirmative action because it is not involved directly with admissions. "We deal with mitigating issues that would tend to reduce retention rates," he said. "We aid in producing basic workforce human resources and as such RISE is more like a workforce solutions program."
Nevertheless, there is a popular perception that tends to lump all minority-related programs together, and those programs are currently being challenged in courtrooms and state legislatures across the country. "One thing we've always had going for us is that the University of Delaware has fairly standard admissions policies. RISE students are recruited and admitted, like all UD students, on the basis of their credentials."
Another obstacle has been the rapid growth of similar programs on campus in other colleges that vie for similar resources.
"We've dealt with this challenge by establishing an environment of cooperation rather than competition," Vaughan said.
Despite the current climate, the RISE program has reached its 25th anniversary in good health. The overall RISE student retention rate is now comparable to that of the engineering student body as a whole.
In recent years, the UD College of Engineering has maintained a high national ranking in the number of African-American engineering graduates.
The latest National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) Research Letter ranked the college 46th in the nation in the overall production of 1995 minority engineering graduates among research institutions. With the exception of institutions in heavily minority-populated regions, the college ranked in the top 10, with an overall minority student graduation representation of 13 percent.
"The first 25 years has been a wonderful journey, but we look forward to the journey ahead," said Vaughan. "Our mission as always will be to support students and help them to achieve their dreams."
Photo by Duane Perry