Living-learning community empowers women in math, science and engineering


By Pooja Deshmukh, Contributing writer

Joining RSOs or Greek life is one way for new students to get involved in social and professional life on campus, but for students in the Women in Math, Science and Engineering (WIMSE) living-learning community (LLC), the opportunity is right in their residence hall.  

WIMSE is located in Trelease Hall as part of the Florida Avenue residence halls. It was designed for undergraduate women in scientific and technical fields, although it is not restricted to any college or major. Nearly half of the residents are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — with biology as the most popular major — and 40 percent are in the College of Engineering.

Lydia Khuri, director of WIMSE and three other Urbana South living-learning communities, said the diversity is what makes WIMSE unique.   

“WIMSE gives women in science and engineering a sense of belonging,” Khuri said. “Some of these women may be the only women in their classes, and WIMSE gives them a community that can help them navigate that.”  

Khuri also said the community’s diversity provides a support system for minority women pursuing careers in STEM, especially those who are Latina or African-American.  

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    Cary Brandolino, freshman in LAS, said she chose to live in WIMSE because she liked math and science and wanted to be part of a group with similar interests. She, like most freshmen, was worried about making new friends, but being in WIMSE helped calm her nerves.

    “I know there’s at least something we have in common,” Brandolino said. “So it’s a starting point. If I walk up to someone on the quad and start talking to them, we probably don’t have anything in common, but in WIMSE we’re all in the same LLC.”

    Brandolino said she enjoyed being able to move in early for orientation, a perk of being in a living-learning community.

    “I got to meet people in WIMSE and other LLCs in a lot more calm environment without the jumble of the big move-in,” she said. 

    So far, she said she is happy with her experience in WIMSE, though she hadn’t known what to expect before moving in.

    “My expectations weren’t right, but not in a bad way,” Brandolino said. “I thought (WIMSE events) would be either nothing at all or stuff 24/7. We have fun, but not so much that it’s overwhelming.”

    WIMSE also offers returning students the option of taking on leadership positions as peer mentors.

    April Wendling, junior in LAS, has been a WIMSE resident since her freshman year on campus.

    She said she believes WIMSE positively impacted her personal development and made her more social. Now, she is a head peer mentor and works alongside other peer mentors to welcome freshmen into the community.  

    “It’s really something between being a mentor and a friend,” Wendling said.   

    Despite being directly in charge of the WIMSE peer mentor program, Khuri said she largely leaves the brainstorming and planning up to the peer mentors themselves.

    “I just ask them why, the logistics and what people will walk away with,” Khuri said. “I try to give them enough structure so they’re not left in the dark or overwhelmed. But I want them to make the program what they want it to be.”

    Peer mentors’ responsibilities include bringing together the community and organizing WIMSE events once a month. Although it can be stressful, Wendling said she enjoys helping the students in WIMSE get to know each other.  

    Wendling said WIMSE goes beyond the social aspects by connecting interested residents with valuable professional connections and experiences. Through WIMSE’s researcher’s initiatives program, she got to work as an undergraduate research assistant studying restoration ecology with James Miller, an associate professor in LAS. She now works as an undergraduate research assistant under Feng Sheng Hu.

    She said she believes that WIMSE opened the doors for her to get practical experience in her field.  

    To join WIMSE, students need to apply for the program and faculty members will then invite them for an interview. WIMSE gives priority to sophomores for research opportunities, but Khuri said exceptions can be made for freshmen depending on the cogency of their argument.

    Khuri said she gathers various other professional resources for WIMSE students as well. She set the foundation for the Beckman Connections program, an event that introduces students to faculty through tours of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Beckman Connections puts WIMSE students in contact with STEM professionals in an informal environment, Khuri said. She has two Beckman Connections planned for this semester that will take place in September and October.

    Other events Khuri has planned include faculty dinners and a WIMSE trip to St. Louis. She is also planning on taking the LLC students to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District in December, where she said she hopes they will all learn something interesting pertaining to their fields regardless of their majors.

    For Wendling and Brandolino, the year ahead in WIMSE presents many exciting social and professional opportunities. For Khuri, it is another year of what she believes is a rewarding experience.

    “It’s a powerful and positive community,” Khuri said. “It’s rewarding to see (the students) get research opportunities and be plugged in to what’s important.”

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