Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers is redefining ‘family’

Student organization provides needed support and opportunities for Hispanic students to succeed

For University of Minnesota engineering student Maria Camila Merino Franco, being of Hispanic descent has spurred many different challenges in her life. An immigrant from Colombia who arrived in the United States with her family at age 12, she was overwhelmed to say the least. Her family was thrown into a state of perpetual confusion, as they were all unfamiliar with the American system.

Despite her good grades, Franco felt lost throughout high school, not knowing her plans after graduation or even how to take tests like the ACT and SAT. When it came time to apply for college, she was not sure where to start. Franco had no idea what engineering was until she was urged to apply for a scholarship through the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).

Established six years ago, the University of Minnesota student chapter of SHPE was created to provide both resources and a community for Hispanic students pursuing degrees in science and engineering. Building upon their five core values—community outreach, academic development, chapter development, professional development, and leadership development—SHPE strives to support the value and influence of Hispanics as leading innovators, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in today’s world.


“We have a familia here on campus where everybody is welcome to come share ideas, experiences, and participate in the community,” said SHPE chapter president Sabrina Goetz-Padilla.


“In an ideal world, I would like to see every Hispanic University student in the College of Science and Engineering and College of Biological Sciences involved in SHPE in some way, because we provide so many opportunities and so much support that is hard to get anywhere else,” Goetz-Padilla added.


Maria Camila Merino Franco


Although Franco doubted that a career in engineering was possible for someone like her, she was awarded the SHPE scholarship. At a gala hosted by SHPE to celebrate scholarship recipients, Franco was able to meet several Hispanic professionals and see how they thrived in the engineering community. It was the first time she had seen successful Hispanic professionals in America, and ever since then, she knew she wanted to be an engineer. Franco, who also received the University’s Thomas W. and Lynn B. Rusch Scholarship, joined SHPE upon attending the University of Minnesota and found a group of people who treated each other like family.

“I felt empowered,” said Franco, who now is majoring in bioproducts and biosystems engineering with an emphasis on environmental and ecological engineering.


“SHPE motivated me, and I knew that it was a community that would continue supporting me. If SHPE didn’t exist, I would not be studying engineering,” Franco said.

Creating new opportunities

Despite Franco’s success story, not many Latinos have the opportunity to receive education beyond high school. Most end up working full time after graduation in order to support their families, and of the near 13 percent of Latinos who do attend college, less than 5 percent major in STEM fields.

SHPE extends far beyond the University of Minnesota with SHPE National and SHPE Professional, made up of working professionals. SHPE also connects undergraduates to high school students, bringing more Latinos into STEM and providing them with the tools and experiences needed to succeed in the professional world.

Through study nights and its internal mentorship program, SHPE offers academic support to its members along with valuable professional development and experience. As a part of the University of Minnesota SHPE chapter, students are given the opportunity to network with local technology and engineering businesses in order to widen their array of professional skills and open up career opportunities. In addition, the mentor SHPE program pairs undergraduate students with working professionals, allowing a more personalized experience in their future career fields.

“The networking events are incredibly helpful,” Franco says. “Everything is a little different when you know these large groups of Hispanic professionals are all rooting for you. Knowing that they’ve had success helps you feel that you can succeed, too.”

Although SHPE has its prominent academic and professional benefits, the organization also provides a community for Hispanic students from around the world at the U of M.

“We call each other familia, and it is very true at times because we understand each other on many levels,” Franco explained. “We have similar backgrounds and culture, and we help each other with the struggles of becoming engineers. It is so helpful to have that, especially in a country where I otherwise feel I have no one to look up to.”

Making a cultural impact

Another facet of SHPE is its aim for cultural impact. The organization is affiliated with several multicultural clubs on campus and tries to participate in every multicultural event possible. For example, SHPE has partnered with La Raza Student Cultural Center in order to advocate for participation of Hispanic students in the University community through various social events.

Aside from benefiting students at the University of Minnesota, SHPE expands its knowledge of STEM to reach those in the Twin Cities community as well. In order to get kids excited about STEM, the organization institutes many K-12 outreach programs including Noche de Ciencias (Night of Science), an event geared toward students and parents and held at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis. During this event, students and their families can learn what it means to attend college and pursue STEM fields along with other aspects of the college search experience.


“I never really thought it was possible for Latinos to triumph in such an exclusive professional world,” says Perla Peña, the chapter’s academic coordinator.


“It seemed as though you needed resources and connections to succeed, which is something most kids do not have,” Peña added. “However, SHPE provides those resources and connections. We have a passion for promoting STEM within the Latino community, because we must show others that it is doable. We must show that we can be successful.”

Through SHPE, students are able to participate in this spread of STEM and also have the opportunity to make long-term connections. SHPE has created its own familia in the Twin Cities with both students and professionals who understand and support each other in their career pursuits. The organization hopes to continue supplying these important and life-changing experiences in the years to come.

“Thanks to SHPE, I am on my way to becoming an engineer,” Franco says. “I have created a large network with lots of connections, and I know I’m going to have a lot of opportunities because of it all.”

Story by Olivia Hultgren