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March Celebrates Contributions of Women to UTEP History

Last Updated on March 31, 2020 at 12:00 AM

Originally published March 31, 2020

By Darlene Barajas and Julian Herrera

UTEP Communications

The month of March, which is nationally devoted to recognizing the contributions of women throughout history, also presents a time to acknowledge the significant achievements of women in science and engineering who have helped the nation advance.

One of the most notable figures in UTEP history is Martha Sue Schooler, the first woman to receive a degree in engineering from Texas Western College in 1957.
One of the most notable figures in UTEP history is Martha Sue Schooler, the first woman to receive a degree in engineering from Texas Western College in 1957.

UTEP has played a significant role in this realm through the scores of women faculty and students who have helped shape the University into the world-class research institution it is today.

One of the most notable figures in UTEP history is Martha Sue Schooler, the first woman to receive a degree in engineering from Texas Western College in 1957. During a period in American history marked by struggles for equal rights, Schooler obtained her education and garnered the respect of male peers and administrators in her program through a formidable work ethic and dedication to her studies.

‘Proud to be a Miner’

Schooler was born in Toyah, Texas, located about 300 miles from El Paso. After the deaths of her parents, she was raised in El Paso by her maternal grandmother and graduated from Austin High School in 1953 at the age of 16. Schooler’s decision to attend UTEP, then known as Texas Western College, was an easy one. Her grandmother consistently implored her to make education a focal point of her life and her parents had saved a significant amount of money for that purpose.

When she arrived at Texas Western in the fall of 1953, the first-generation college student majored in radio and television. Before long, Schooler’s affinity for the technical side of entertainment grew. As a result, she switched her major to electrical engineering.

“All my professors were very nice to me and very encouraging,” Schooler said in a video address delivered during the 2019 College of Engineering Homecoming Breakfast.

On commencement day in spring 1957, Eugene Thomas, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering, personally awarded Schooler her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and announced, “This is the first female to graduate with an engineering degree here at Texas Western.”

The 85-year-old Schooler credits her lengthy professional career to her degree.

“For one thing, it has always gotten me a job,” she said.

Schooler’s first job after graduating from Texas Western was at White Sands Missile Range. Later in her career, she chose to pursue teaching. She said her implementation of basic engineering concepts in the classroom inspired some of her students to pursue degrees in engineering themselves. The impact of her experience at Texas Western College has spurred her to instill the value of education in her children, but to advocate for the importance of higher education to all people throughout her life.

“We have a very good University and professors,” Schooler said. “We worked hard. We were encouraged. We have a lot to be proud of and our students went on to accomplish great things. Always encourage others. I am so proud to be a Miner. For the College of Engineering, study hard and put us out there and make everyone sure they know we are from UTEP.”

Promoting diversity

Schooler’s accomplishments laid the foundation for subsequent decades of success and UTEP’s promotion of women in STEM.

One of those examples is Ann Quiroz Gates, Ph.D., professor of computer science and director of the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI). In a recent interview, Gates recalled her riveting experience participating in TCM Day for the first time and shared her thoughts on representation and the expansion of the celebration to encourage the participation of all schools and colleges.

Gates was fascinated by the notion of incorporating every college in a tradition that primarily existed to accentuate the University’s foundation in engineering. UTEP’s longest-running tradition began in 1920, when students commemorated St. Patrick, the patron saint of engineers, by initiating freshman engineers at the then-Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy (TCM) on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

In 2009, it was declared that the celebration would commence on a date close to Saint Patrick’s Day, but with a revitalized spirit paying homage to the origins of UTEP as an institution founded upon mining and engineering and would henceforth be referred to as TCM Day.

Gates participated in TCM Day – the University’s longest-running tradition that celebrated its 100th anniversary in March 2020 – as a faculty member in the mid-1990s. The celebration pays homage to UTEP’s mining roots and recognizes the substantial role that the College of Engineering played in the foundation of the University.

“The whole intention of TCM Day is to give an identity through something that is a rite of passage,” Gates said. “I think it created a bond between me and the students.”

Gates added that the effort to include the entire University in TCM Day festivities allows the entire campus to celebrate the importance of all of its colleges. She said this underlines the importance of representation in the STEM fields.

“Moving toward inclusion, moving toward interdisciplinary, and the importance of bringing everyone together to solve problems, I think, is a really important message.” Gates said. “I think that should be part of what is done as we move forward. You know, ‘Why are we doing this?’ Well, it’s really about inclusion and including people who bring different ideas to solve problems.”

Gates is one of a number of collaborators from UTEP who work with counterparts at other institutions and organizations to make up the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI).

CAHSI serves as the lead partner in a collaboration through the National Science Foundation’s Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) program. NSF INCLUDES is a comprehensive effort to enhance U.S. leadership in science and engineering discovery and innovation by proactively seeking and effectively developing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent from all sectors and groups.

The alliance’s vision is to ensure Hispanics comprise 20% of graduates in computing disciplines, nationally, by 2030. Women figure heavily into that vision.

In spring 2020, female undergraduate enrollment in the College of Engineering rose from 20% to 22%, and enrollment at the doctoral level has consistently remained at 30%. The University historically serves underrepresented individuals in STEM, providing resources and experience for a predominantly Hispanic population along the U.S.-Mexico border. Currently, 80% of students are Hispanic. UTEP is one of only 73 institutions to be recognized with the Community Engagement Classification by the Carnegie Foundation and is strongly committed to its function as an asset of equal opportunity for a comprehensive education at both a regional and international level.