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President Spotlight: Dr. Sonya T. Smith

October 25, 2021

Dr. Sonya T. Smith is president of the WEPAN Board of Directors, who are responsible for defining WEPAN’s mission and for providing overall leadership and strategic direction to the organization according to its bylaws, policies, and procedures.

Smith joined the Howard University faculty in 1995 and is the first tenured female faculty member in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. In 2010 she became the first woman promoted to the highest academic rank of Professor (full) in this department and the following year 2011 became the first woman appointed as Mechanical Engineering Department Chair at Howard University, a position she served in until 2015.

Smith’s association with WEPAN began years ago, when she first started as a faculty member at Howard. “A friend of mine at the University of Maryland was very involved with WEPAN, which at the time was an organization for women in engineering program directors. I was very interested in what WEPAN was working on and was excited to join the board when the opportunity came.

Smith’s presidency differs from that of her predecessors in that WEPAN now has a full-time executive director, who oversees day-to-day operations. This allows her to take a more strategic role, setting agendas for initiatives and overseeing the organization’s growth.

“My goals as president are to expand our footprint and our presence in the space for equity and inclusion for in engineering,” she says. "When WEPAN was founded, it was the only organization of its type advocating for women in engineering. While there are many more today, WEPAN still has a special role to play in defining agendas for women in engineering programs when it comes to equity and social justice."

Smith obtained her Ph.D. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from The University of Virginia (UVA) in 1995 and was also the first African-American woman to do so, in addition to her “firsts” at Howard. “I hope part of my legacy is that I’ve helped and encouraged more women to pursue STEM degrees and become faculty members. We don’t just want firsts, we want to have a critical mass of women and people of color as faculty in these areas.”

Smith became interested in creating systemic change in engineering in graduate school, and that interest continued as a faculty member at Howard. She serves as principal investigator of the university’s National Science Foundation ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant (HU ADVANCE-IT), which has enabled Howard to develop an innovative and strategic model for institutional transformation that increases the number of female leaders in the STEM discipline. “ADVANCE provided me with a way to create social change at my institution, and now WEPAN offers me that same opportunity at a national level.”

She has advice for others seeking to make systemic change in engineering. “As human beings, we are resistant to change, so being persistent is crucial. This will also require a certain amount of patience. It is necessary for you to become more comfortable with not being liked by everyone because they do not see the need for change. It requires the fortitude to convince detractors that we can be even better when all are valued and can participate. Finding allies and coalition building are important, and that is where WEPAN brings its strength.”

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