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ECE Advocacy for Student Engagement (EASE)

Dean's Award for Inclusive Excellence in Graduate Education
Nominators: Michael E. Gehm,  Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Natalie Rozman, Ph.D., Candidate and Sloan Scholar in Electrical & Computer Engineering

The Electrical and Computer Engineering Advocacy for Student Engagement organization aims to build a community within the ECE department through social, academic, wellbeing, and outreach events.

When ECE administrators began the organization in 2017, it was mainly led by Amy Kostrewa, the former ECE director of graduate studies assistant, with minimal graduate student involvement. This changed when Natalie Rozman, a current fourth-year Ph.D. candidate and Sloan Scholar in the program, and a group of other ECE graduate students formed the first student-led executive board in their first year.

“When I joined EASE, there were about seven active graduate students in the organization,” said Rozman, the former president of EASE who is still on the executive board. “The students in my cohort were determined to make this organization graduate student-led and let the department take more of a backseat role.”

EASE is now solely a graduate student-led organization with about 100 members on its listserv, 25 active members, and eight executive board members.

“Natalie came in and kind of took over and planned everything,” said Jessica Centers, a member of EASE and a Ph.D. candidate in the same cohort as Rozman. “The groundwork she set has really made it become primarily student-led, even though she’s taken a step back from being president.”

Centers, along with Brittani Carroll, helped co-found ECE College–High School Opportunity (ECHO), an outreach program that EASE launched to give North Carolina high school students an opportunity to learn about engineering disciplines, with an emphasis on electrical and computer engineering.

“We were all very excited about the idea of hosting a program to show high schoolers, who think they’re interested in ECE or who have been told they may be good at engineering, about the various disciplines within the ECE department.,” Centers said.

ECHO was originally planned as an in-person summer program, but due to COVID-19, debuted as a virtual event in the winter of 2020. Centers said they ended up reaching a lot more students because they weren’t constrained by physical space or travel restrictions.

“It was a really great display of the willingness of ECE graduate students to get involved in outreach efforts,” Rozman said. “We even had undergraduates and faculty come together and volunteer their time  to give back to the community.”

Another one of EASE’s outreach programs is the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Graduate Student Application Workshop, which aims to increase the diversity in ECE graduate applicants. This program recruits students from historically black colleges and universities and encourages them to pursue graduate education. To further diversify the ECE applicant pool, the program provided underrepresented minority applicants with Graduate School application fee waivers.

“Based on statistics released by The Graduate School , we don’t have a large minority population enrolled in ECE graduate programs,” Rozman said. “It’s partially because we aren’t even receiving applications from historically underrepresented minority groups.”

Even though there have been some difficulties holding events due to COVID-19, Brittany Smith, a second-year Ph.D. student and EASE board member, said that EASE’s role in the community was especially important during such a tumultuous time.

“I think having an organization such as EASE has really been key during these past two years for students, because it’s been one of those moments where we’re like, ‘OK, we don’t know anyone in the area, what’s a good way to actually interact with people?’ ” Smith said. “I think EASE has been a really good outlet for a lot of us to do so.”

This year, EASE has transitioned to having more on- and off-campus in-person events. Michael Gehm, associate professor and director of graduate studies for ECE, said that EASE has become a valued partner with both the ECE graduate program and The Graduate School.

“The wide range of events that can attract different subgroups and interests within the student population can only pay long-term benefits to the organization and its ability to be a champion for diversity in the department,” said Gehm, who and Rozman nominated EASE for the Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence in Graduate Education for 2022.

As the recipients of the award, EASE will receive $5,000. The organization hasn’t decided exactly what to do with money, but it will go toward supporting the ECE community.

“It’s really important to have a community because then you don’t feel like you’re going through the program alone,” Rozman said. “You can have that support network to fall back on, get advice, get mentorship and really make sure that you stick it through to the end.”