June 18, 2021

Women in science fields foster community with ‘Lean in Circles’


Some students work together with robotics at UT’s Women in EECS’s building party. Courtesy of Alex Hashemian.

The University of Tennessee’s Women in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science group is taking action to mentor and reach out to students after becoming the founding circle in a partnership with LeanIn.org, an organization devoted to helping women advance their careers, opportunities and interests.

The Lean In movement is based on the novel, “Lean In,” by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. It details the trials women face professionally and encourages women to be ambitious when following their dreams.

This movement came to UT after Denise Koessler, president and founder of Women in EECS, attended the Grace Hopper Conference held annually by the Anita Borg Institute.

“Lean In had made their circles, and their circles have existed for a couple of months now, but Anita Borg got together with Lean In to make circles specifically centered on the tech community. So Anita Borg reached out to me since they knew me and asked me to be the first circle host for the new sub community partnered with Lean In,” Koessler said.

Koessler said that the group’s mission is to recruit, mentor and retain women who choose to major in EECS. So far, this group has about 60 members and is holding several events to help network and build a community within this major.

“We had a large building party to start a community, and since then we’ve been having monthly events with dinner, and we bring in local industry to talk about internships,” Koessler said.

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Koessler speaks at the Grace Hopper Conference held by the Anita Borg Institute. Courtesy of Steve Maller.

She attributed her interest in helping to start this group to her personal experience as a student and the mentor she had that helped her get through school.

“I had a mentor, and she helped me through every class. She was there. We did everything together. I would have not been able to stay. I would have quit if she hadn’t helped, and I can only imagine and know of people in our department who quit because they wanted a mentor. They needed someone to help get through it who just wasn’t there,” Koessler said.

Because of her experiences, Koessler wants to create a mentor program where students from different academic levels in the department can help one another.

“The second goal is the mentor mentee program because sure, it could be about getting into classes. But really, at the end of the day, it’s about understanding how to navigate the department,” Koessler said. “Maybe you’re a junior and you’re wondering ‘what do I do about grad school?’ so you could have a grad school mentor, and you can get their opinion on how to apply for grad school.”

Since starting the group and its activities, Koessler has seen and heard positive feedback from students and the employers who have visited the group.

“The companies that came to our first networking meeting, we had ORNL and Cadre5 and EnerNex. They just came to talk to students,” Koessler said.

“They got to have life-centered conversations and build more of a relationship and mentorship than feeling like they had a pressured interview,” Koessler said. “The companies loved it. I was watching them, and everyone was talking. It was like an explosion of conversation. So everyone looked like it was great.”

For more information on UT’s Women in EECS and their events, check out their website.

Edited by Zach Dennis

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