The first roots of one of the longest-running programs of its kind in the nation reach back more than 25 years ago, to a symposium in Washington, D.C., where UH engineering professor Gerhard Paskusz listened intently to the speech of General Electric CEO Reginald H. Jones.
In his speech, Jones said that if the United States wished to elevate the economic future of minorities, the best way to do so was through engineering. He proposed that new programs were needed to get more minorities into engineering.
Jones based his assertion on the idea that most engineering students came from blue-collar homes and thus the engineering career had for a long time been providing an economic upward jump. No other economic ladder seemed to provide similar opportunities.
"That's what the impetus was," said Dr. Paskusz of Jones' speech. Paskusz then utilized a $5,000 grant from Dupont to start the program.
Initially, the program carried the name "Program for Minority Engineering Students", or PROMES (pronounced "promise"). However, it changed its name following a decision in the Hopwood court case, which forbade discrimination on the basis of race. "After the Hopwood decision, in order to keep the acronym, we changed our name to 'Program for Mastery in Engineering Studies'," said Dr. Paskusz.
Under both names, PROMES has steadfastly flourished. Since its modest start in 1974 with only eight students, it has grown to include over 500 members. And according to these members, PROMES is an encouraging and helpful influence in their lives.
"PROMES is a backbone to a lot of engineering students," said industrial engineering student Morolake Kuteyi, a member of PROMES for two years. "Some students say that if they were not involved in PROMES they don't think they would be engineering majors."
Any engineering student may become a member of PROMES, provided that he or she consents to signing a contract that gives PROMES control over the student's freshman year class schedule. This is done to ensure that the student will enroll in at least one or two freshman classes that are strictly PROMES courses.
"In the freshman courses we got to know them [the students], they got to know us, they got to know each other," said Dr. Paskusz. "We had as a paradigm for the program the establishment of a scholar's community. We wanted to make sure that the students were working together, helping each other and competing with each other. That, from the very beginning, has been our aim."
PROMES members are also encouraged to attend banquets, speeches by representatives from the industry and other functions organized by the program. However, Dr. Paskusz feels that the first-year courses and the program's workshops, which assist students in broadening their knowledge beyond the classroom, are the most important part of PROMES. "They make the program," he said.
Workshops are one of the main methods used to prevent students from becoming discouraged and failing or switching majors. Maintaining a higher retention rate than the general engineering college is one of the goals specified in PROMES' Institutional Effectiveness Plan.
"Our freshmen retention usually is a few percentage points higher than the freshmen retention for engineering students as a whole," said Dr. Paskusz.
Kuteyi described how workshops help sustain PROMES' high retention rate. "They put you in workshops, for example like calculus, which are the weed-out classes for the freshmen, and they provide you with TAs who are just exceptionally good. As you get higher in your engineering courses," said Kuteyi, "you build a bond with these people that you have been in workshops with since your freshman year."
Mechanical engineering student Daila Gonzales also found benefits in the workshops. "I really enjoy the workshops. You get a lot out of it. They give you extra sets of problems, more experience, a broader view of the material."
PROMES also focuses on sustaining the four-year retention rate.
Tekara Wash is one student who returned to engineering due to PROMES' efforts. She had switched majors from engineering to another field, but upon discovering PROMES she switched back to electrical engineering, where she currently is doing well under the program's help and guidance. "My grades have really improved since I've been in PROMES," said Wash.
Other goals outlined in the Institutional Effectiveness Plan include achieving higher grades in basic mathematics and science courses, maintaining a higher percentage of freshmen on the Dean's List, and increasing the number of kindergarten through high school students who consider careers in Engineering.
PROMES also is dedicated to helping its members obtain scholarships.
When Kuteyi enrolled at UH her freshman year she wasn't able to get any scholarships. Then she met John Matthews, the program manager of PROMES. Matthews ensured her that once she improved herself during her first semester she would be able to apply and receive scholarships, and that did happen, said Kuteyi.
"Mr. Matthews is constantly finding out new information for scholarships," Kuteyi said. "The PROMES crew, they support the engineering students. If you're having money problems, they find financial services for you. If you're having academic problems, they find tutors for you."
PROMES also teaches its members skills for the corporate world, offering classes to increase networking skills by learning how to write résumés and cover letters, make portfolios and appear presentable to companies. Students participate in mock interviews and have the opportunity to talk with companies that visit the program. PROMES also provides students with internships.
Two separate summer programs are run out of the PROMES office. One is a 2-week commuter summer camp for 8th through 11th graders, and the other is the Mentoring and Enrichment Seminar in Engineering Training (MESET), a 3-week residential program for rising high school seniors.
"I just got a letter from a student that was in MESET," said Dr. Paskusz. "He's out in the industry now. One of the things we do at MESET is we give them a return envelope and say, 'send us your comments after you've had a chance to think about it'. This person just sent us his comments about six or seven years after he was in the program. He said that it really turned him around, turned his life around, and he can't thank us enough."
Other students echo this sentiment.
"Engineering is a very tough degree; you have to have support," said Kuteyi. "I don't know where I would be if I didn't have PROMES."