A new program will provide a support system for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at the University of Richmond. 

In October 2017, UR mathematics professors Della Dumbaugh and Heather Russell received a grant from the National Science Foundation to found the group Leveling Up: Building Community and Confidence which will support women in STEM. 

The grant covers group activities that extend the reach of STEM to both the city of Richmond community and to UR students.

The professors were inspired to start this group because of their own experiences as women in STEM and the experiences of their students at UR, they said.

“Our female math students sometimes are drawn to us for mentorship, because that’s what happens when you see yourself in a mentor," Russell said. "So through that, I’ve seen many examples of students that I’ve interacted with here that showed me that this group would be important and useful."

The Leveling Up community comprises students in Dumbaugh’s linear algebra class and Russell’s multivariate calculus class. The first meeting was held on Jan. 27 at Dumbaugh’s home to discuss empowering literature and their personal experiences as women in STEM.

Members also meet with study groups weekly for their respective classes as part of the program. The study groups are led by female students whom both professors have taught.

Eline Wilhelm, senior, is a class mentor in Russell's multivariate calculus class. Wilhelm's role is to help students with class assignments. 

"Dr. Russell hands out worksheets at the beginning of every Tuesday class," Wilhelm said. "Me and Dr. Russell walk around the classroom helping students and explaining concepts to them."

Another student, sophomore Claire Hogan, leads a weekly study group for Dumbaugh’s linear algebra class and she appreciates the community it has provided her with, she said. 

"I’m doing a computer science major as well as an international studies major, so I was interested in doing this, just because I know through personal experience that there aren’t a lot of women in the computer science field and in my classes,” Hogan said.

In addition to providing resources for women in STEM on campus, Leveling Up has reached out to the surrounding city of Richmond as well. 

Last semester, the group attended Sonya Kovalevsky Day, a celebration held at Virginia Commonwealth University that motivates middle school-aged girls to pursue mathematics. At the event, Leveling Up members organized a hands-on math activity to engage the young girls in attendance.

Russell expressed how gratifying it was to have an impact on the students at the event.

“Promoting women in math and paying it forward, because I’ve been such a big recipient of that, is always important to me and is something that I’ve been excited to do,” she said.

The sense of support and community created within the group has been invaluable in both an emotional and academic sense, Wilhelm said.

“This kind of group is really nice to have, especially for freshmen and sophomore women who may not have declared their major,” Wilhelm said. “To be able to talk to older STEM majors and hear people's experiences is really helpful.”

Dumbaugh and Russell are aware of how mentorship programs such as Leveling Up can leave a lasting impression on women in STEM from their own experiences in the field.

“If we don’t feel good about our position in the classroom or our performance, that affects how we perform," Russell said. "So the psychological piece is really important to the practical piece, and they’re super interconnected."

Despite the fact that Leveling Up focuses on providing community and mentorship for women in STEM, men are not excluded from membership.

“The only qualification is that you have to have an interest in supporting the women of math and science,” Hogan said. “It’s more about building community I’d say, just being around a core group of people I can look to and know that there’s other women there, even though you might not see it in your day-to-day classes.”

If UR STEM students are interested in joining the Leveling Up community, they should contact ddumbaugh@richmond.edu or hrussell@richmond.edu for more information.

Contact news writer Lauren Guzman at lauren.guzman@richmond.edu. 

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