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Women engineers rise

Since the 1980s, Women Engineers Rise (WE Rise) has been dedicated to centering the experiences of women in the College of Engineering. Over the past year, the comprehensive program has expanded to also highlight nonbinary engineering professionals.

Formerly known as Women in Science & Engineering (WiSE), WE Rise is one of the College’s Programs for Inclusive Excellence. Open to all students, the program offers students mentorship opportunities, advising and tutoring, leadership development and community building. Each spring, the WE Rise annual conference brings together area high school, undergraduate and graduate students with engineering leaders across the UW and in industry. Workshops invite students to explore a range of topics, including gender diversity in tech, demystifying graduate school, power dynamics in the workplace, managing feelings of impostership, leadership styles and strategies, and experiencing the STEM workplace environment as a person of color.

Here, three UW engineering alums share how WE Rise helped set them up for their professional careers as engineers, what they remember most about the program from their time as undergraduates, and why they continue to stay involved with WE Rise today.

Sirena Merfalen, Customer Engineering Manager, The Boeing Company
B.S., 2013, and M.S., 2018, Industrial & Systems Engineering

Sirena Merfalen

Sirena Merfalen

What do you do at Boeing?

I manage engineering teams that support our airline customers worldwide. When customers place orders for airplanes, we work with them to customize our products to fit their needs. From curating the passenger experience to addressing accessibility concerns with restrooms on board, we’re involved from start to finish—from the initial design conversations to final take-off.

What do you remember most about WE Rise as a student?

Industry nights with guest speakers, teas and luncheons to practice networking and communication skills-building, resume writing workshops, mock interviews—the list is long! I especially appreciated the thoughtfulness that went into speaker selection. Guest speakers weren’t afraid to be candid about their experiences as students and in the workplace. Often I could see myself in many of them. WE Rise also introduced me to a community of women supporting other women. I am still friends with many people I met in the program. Quite a few of us continue to volunteer with WE Rise today. 

WE Rise conference

Attendees at the 2023 WE Rise conference. Photo by Matt Hagen

Expanding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is central to WE Rise. Why does DEI matter in industry?

Some may think that expanding DEI benefits only minority groups, but everyone benefits from equity. Research has shown that when employees feel accepted and included at work—they can be their authentic selves—there is less turnover and more overall productivity. In addition to the many reasons for advancing DEI, this is what makes a company profitable and from a business standpoint it’s in a company’s best interest to be equitable. 

Why have you stayed involved?

I got through college because of the programs and services like those offered through WE Rise. Cathryne Jordan, who directs the program, supported me at every step in my engineering journey. Because of that support, I vowed to pay it forward. This spring I served on a panel with other Boeing women at the WE Rise annual conference. I’ve also represented Boeing at WE Rise career fairs and in industry nights and other networking events.

I stay involved because I want my field and the place I work to look different. I want to see more women, especially women of color, in engineering. Getting good grades does not guarantee a  job, and so learning outside of the classroom is just as important as within it. WE Rise helps supplement the classroom experience.

Uloma Okoro, Data Analyst and RPA Bot Developer, AT&T
B.S., 2017, Electrical Engineering

Uloma Okoro

Uloma Okoro

Tell us about your work at AT&T.

After graduating, I joined AT&T’s rotational program. It’s offered to new hires who’ve just graduated from college to expose them to different teams. My first team focused on radio frequency engineering—for example, when a cell tower problem is reported, you diagnose it and communicate with field technicians to resolve it. The work wasn’t for me, but I learned about project management. I then became interested in robotic process automation (that’s the “RPA” in my title) bots—software applications that run automated tasks. Even though I had an electrical engineering degree, I needed to brush up on my coding skills to pursue bot development. For weeks, I’d eat dinner after work then spend the rest of the night learning SQL. I got certified and moved to my current role where I help teams across the company automate processes.

How would you describe WE Rise to those unfamiliar with it?

It’s a huge support network of resources, people, tools and opportunities. It’s a catapult for women, particularly women of color, who want to pursue careers in engineering. It’s a community of women supporting women across disciplines—growing together, not competing with each other. It’s skills-building, confidence development, personal and professional growth.

Tell us about your experience with WE Rise while you were a student.

I wouldn’t have become an engineer without it! I excelled at math in high school but knew very little about engineering. I participated in a WiSE summer program before starting at the UW. It introduced me to engineering majors I had no idea existed, like electrical engineering. My involvement grew from there. I attended and helped organize workshops and other events. For two years I worked part-time as a WiSE student program assistant.

Why do you continue to volunteer?

I fought hard for my footing at the UW and as an engineer. I owe it to my role models and mentors—Cathryne Jordan from WE Rise, Gail Cornelius from the UW Engineering Career Center and Eve Riskin, who was a UW electrical engineering professor when I was a student. I received so much encouragement from these women, and they inspired me to give back. Today I serve on the WE Rise Advisory Board. I help organize networking events, high school outreach, career fairs and the annual conference. I’m proud to say that I’ve attended 10 and have helped run eight of them! I want to show up for today’s students and empower them as best I can.

Yuliana Flores, doctoral student and research assistant, Human Centered Design & Engineering
B.S., 2018, UW Human Centered Design & Engineering, M.Ed., 2020, Policy, Organizations & Leadership

Sirena Merfalen

Yuliana Flores

What are you studying in graduate school?

I’m interested in engineering education, specifically guided by the question of how we might develop an engineering curriculum that is more responsible for creating equity in our society. My frustration with traditional engineering curriculum stems from learning how science and technology have perpetuated racism and other inequities throughout history. It’s inspired me to imagine how providing students with a historical perspective of engineering might broaden their understanding of what engineering is and learn to reflect on their knowledge and commitments so they won’t contribute to the kinds of historical inequities we have seen.

What did you learn from WE Rise?

I’m the oldest of five and the first in my family to attend college. Growing up I didn’t have role models in science and engineering. But WE Rise—and other programs like it, such as the UW Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and Math Academy—changed that. Through lab visits, I got to see what “doing research” meant. I also learned about the difference between preparing for careers in academia and industry.

WE Rise instilled in me the value of having a community to lean on, one that not only knows the resources and the tools that help you get ahead, but will make it possible for you to stay and to grow. This is critical for all underrepresented groups in engineering. WE Rise is really a model.

Are you still involved?

Absolutely. I am part of WE Rise’s alumni network, and I take part in events whenever I can. I’ve been a lecturer for WE Rise’s Leadership Academy. I work in the Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching (CELT) on campus and had the opportunity to host a workshop on design and engineering for WE Rise students. And I still count Cathryne Jordan as one of my main mentors at the UW.

Why should engineering students participate in programs like WE Rise?

These programs provide resources you don’t know you need. Engineering curriculum trains you to problem solve, while WE Rise and programs like it provide support you need outside of the classroom and beyond. WE Rise is the trampoline that can launch you into spaces that weren’t traditionally designed for you, and it teaches you how to excel when you get there.

Advancing equity and inclusion at the UW College of Engineering

The College of Engineering is committed to building an inclusive and equitable environment for future engineers. Find out more about how WE Rise contributes to these efforts.


Originally published July 17, 2023