Student-led program offers hands-on activities, builds connections with peers and faculty

Participants on ropes courseWhen you’re new to a place, perhaps the greatest gift is a familiar face. 

Creating connections is one of the goals of preLUsion, Lehigh’s three-day, pre-orientation program for first-year students. The award-winning Lehigh Women Engineers (LWE) preLUsion experience is meant to do many things—help students make friends, learn their way around campus, and get exposed to various opportunities in engineering.

“My social anxiety played a part in me wanting to meet new people before a whole swarm of freshmen came onto campus,” says Andrea Jones ’22, a LWE alumna who returned to the program this year as a student mentor. As a first-year participant, the now double major in mechanical engineering and product design says she had “wanted to get used to the environment here, and definitely get used to engineering because I wasn’t really sure that was what I wanted to do.”

This year’s LWE experience was held August 16-18 and offered 21 participants what is now a traditional lineup featuring a scavenger hunt, hands-on activities based in different engineering disciplines, and a ropes course challenge to foster teamwork and trust. In between all the action were panels, group sessions, workshops, socials (such as a paint-along night led by a local artist), and opportunities to get to know the college’s women faculty and deans. 

In designing the slate of activities, program organizers, including Christina V. Haden, a professor of practice in the mechanical engineering and mechanics department, and Chayah Wilbers, the Rossin College’s special events manager, leaned on what they had learned hosting LWE online last summer amid the pandemic. 

“One silver lining from our virtual lineup of events was the ability to hold a panel discussion with women faculty from each of our eight engineering departments,” says Haden. “It was such an impactful event for the students that we decided to hold it again this summer,” with most panelists attending in person. 

“The students asked amazing questions, and our panelists were so genuine and honest in their answers,” she says. “The bonds between our women are so much deeper through their shared experiences in person.”

In 2020, the LWE PreLUsion experience was recognized by INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine with an Inspiring Programs in STEM Award. The award honors colleges and universities that encourage and assist students from underrepresented groups to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). 

Student mentors, who are former participants, are the primary leaders of LWE: They’re a comforting presence over the three days, answering questions, assuaging anxieties, and forming the kind of bonds they know will carry their fellow students through the challenges that lie ahead.

“I did preLUsion when I was a first-year, and I had such a great experience,” says Emma Mirabelli ’22, a computer engineering major who has served as an LWE mentor for the past three years. “I really got to bond with my mentors, and they were a constant source of advice throughout my first year. I just want to pass down the same wisdom that was passed down to me.”  

Later this fall, the LWE group will come together for a reunion to strengthen the connections formed over the three days. 

“We’ve received wonderful feedback from our participants about how much they valued their experience with LWE and we’re ready to build on that success,” says Haden. The pandemic interrupted plans to expand programming to include follow-up activities for LWE alumnae throughout the academic year, she explains, but “we are back now and ambitiously looking forward to implementing those ideas.”

Haden says that “continued contact with the students is the next frontier to expand the impact of our program and help bolster the retention of women in engineering.”

2021 Lehigh Women Engineers preLUsion group photo
The students asked amazing questions, and our panelists were so genuine and honest in their answers. The bonds between our women are so much deeper through their shared experiences in person.
Christina V. Haden, professor of practice, mechanical engineering and mechanics
Christina V. Haden