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Ensuring an inclusive and welcoming environment

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September 2016

The beginning of the school year is always exciting. But for many students it can also be accompanied by some nervousness and trepidation as they encounter new teachers and peers, and new classes, living environments and surroundings.

This is particularly so for the hundreds of students who come to Stanford Engineering but perhaps feel that they don't quite fit the perceived profile of what an engineer "should look like." Included among them may be students on the undergraduate and graduate level who are female, from an underrepresented minority or LGBT population, or one of the roughly 15% of Stanford's undergraduates who are the first in their family to attend college.

I have spoken in many venues and written to the school about why diversity is so important to the School of Engineering and outlined some of the ways we are working to increase diversity at all levels. These initiatives are proceeding, and I look forward to giving updates in subsequent communications. But as the school year begins, we also must ask ourselves a critical question: What are we doing to ensure that the Stanford Engineering environment and educational experience is as inclusive and welcoming as possible to all of our students regardless of their backgrounds and identity?

This is an important question because we know that we will only succeed in becoming more diverse in the School of Engineering if we can succeed in making our culture more inclusive. This is also a difficult question in part because it forces us to admit that despite our best intentions we do not always get it right. Last year, a female African-American student wrote a searing essay titled, "No, I Am Not Lost," in which she described her experiences in Gates in which individuals would inevitably ask her what they ask other minorities in a largely technical space or building: "Hey, are you lost?"

Also last year, a student asked us about the non-inclusive way one of our departments was soliciting information about student gender on a form required for students majoring in the field. In another instance, a student legitimately asked why, in an otherwise highly diverse video we created to celebrate and honor our outgoing seniors, there was no representation from our significant population of black students.

From each of these experiences we have learned and improved our processes and the way we think about these issues. We also recognize that while we make progress and learn, others are being made uncomfortable by our mistakes. So, what can we do going forward?

First and foremost, we are committed to a respectful, good-faith dialogue on these issues with our students, staff, faculty and alumni. And we are working to increase the diversity of our faculty because the most powerful message to a student that they belong here is to see someone they can identify with on the faculty.

Within the Dean's Office, as we create programs for students and alumni, we are always asking ourselves what we can do to be more inclusive. In our communications materials, we actively examine the subject matter, language, imagery and tone to attempt to engage the broadest and most diverse possible audience.

Finally, there are also grassroots efforts from some of our faculty and lecturers. A few weeks ago, one of our computer science lecturers, Cynthia Bailey Lee, posted a piece shared widely on social media titled, "What can I do today to create a more inclusive community in CS?" It spelled out more than a dozen short-, medium- and long-term classroom tactics, much of them grounded in rigorous academic research, to create a more welcoming environment. I strongly support initiatives such as this, and I urge you to read it.

I realize that some may worry that by focusing on inclusiveness, we are not preparing our students for the rough-and-tumble of the "real world." I see this differently. If we can educate our students in a supportive environment, we will be helping them develop the self-confidence they need to be successful, and at the same time demonstrating for our future leaders the necessity of diverse teams in tackling the world’s urgent challenges. We will give them the tools to survive in the "real world" and change it for the better.

I make this assertion based on personal experience. I studied physics at Wellesley, a women's college, before enrolling in the PhD program at UC-Berkeley, where I was the only female student in my class of 48. The transition was not always smooth for me, although I want to acknowledge that my path was much smoother than what many of our students today face because I came from an academic family. But I was also fortunate to have incredible teachers, both men and women. Their mentorship and their commitment to work to create a positive environment helped give me the self-confidence I needed to deal with some of the less positive experiences that I encountered.

We have a responsibility at Stanford to provide that kind of leadership to our students. We are committed to doing so.


Persis Drell

Frederick Emmons Terman Dean, Stanford School of Engineering 
James and Anna Marie Spilker Professor in the School of Engineering
​Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Physics, Stanford University