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Opening Doors

A new scholarship helps advance minorities in STEM

Berenice Calva-Morales

(photo by Jeremy Wangler)

From Bell Tower - 2021
By Annie Flachsbarth

Before Berenice Calva-Morales received a scholarship to attend Washburn University, going to college was a “maybe,” not a guarantee. She was interested in pursuing higher education, but the financials didn’t quite line up. However, when one of her Topeka High School teachers and her advisor reached out and recommended that she apply for a new STEM scholarship at Washburn, everything seemed to fall into place. 

Now a freshman at Washburn, Calva-Morales is in a pre-engineering track and is interested in one day pursuing aerospace engineering. 

“I’ve always been interested in STEM as a kid, but I didn’t do much to pursue it other than learn from books at the library,” Calva-Morales said. “It’s often really hard for women and girls to get into STEM when you don’t have many supporters or role models.” 

According to Laura Stephenson, dean, College of Arts and Sciences, this is sadly an all-too-common problem, and women and ethnic minorities in particular remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“If you look at the national data, there are fewer minority students going into the sciences, and even fewer minority women,” Stephenson said. “Finding ways to provide education to those who didn’t have access to it before is in the DNA of Washburn.”

Which is why the university has been seeking ways to provide more support and opportunity to minority women pursuing a STEM education. And they found one when a donor – who knows something about being a woman in male-dominated fields – decided to fund a Minority Women in STEM Scholarship.

Earning the Opportunity

When Kris Rinne, bs ’76, graduated from Washburn, she fully intended on becoming a high school math teacher. However, one of her professors, unbeknownst to her, scheduled an interview for her with Southwestern Bell Telephone – a company looking to hire more women and minorities interested in math and sciences into management ranks. She was offered a job and her career took off from there. 

In the 38-year career that followed, Rinne was a pioneer in the evolution, development and implementation of various wireless technologies such as smartphones, tablets and high-speed LTE services. By the time she retired, as the senior vice president of network technologies for AT&T, she was regularly listed as one of the most influential women in wireless and was inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame. 

“Often during my career, I was the only female in the room when representing my company. Someone reached out and gave me the opportunity, but I had to earn it,” Rinne said. “I wanted to find a way to give that opportunity to a female minority charting their own path in science and technology, to hopefully make a difference in their own career and life’s trajectory.”

She also came to realize that minority women often faced additional hurdles. In a year when the Black Lives Matter movement dominated the press, Rinne found opportunities to interact with and listen to the stories of former employees and people of color. Realizing she was in a position to directly impact this movement, she decided the best way to help was to facilitate and open doors where she could – providing resources wherever possible to allow minority women to blaze their own trail in science and technology. 

Like others, Calva-Morales had her own struggles as a Mexican American female minority high school student. 

“I didn’t start out as a good student. It was hard for me to focus on school because of things going on at home,” Calva-Morales said. 

That changed during her junior year of high school when she enrolled at the Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Careers, a program offering Topeka area high school students specific courses that explore professions in high demand fields like technology and engineering. 

“Getting interested in STEM got me thinking more about college. I worked harder and I got better grades. I even made the honor roll my senior year,” Calva-Morales said.

Berenice Calva-Morales and Kris Rinne

Paving the Way

As the chair of Washburn Women’s Venture Partners, Rinne understood exactly where, and how, philanthropy could make a difference: by encouraging and making it easier for women minorities in STEM. So, she paired with the College of Arts and Sciences to create and fund a scholarship for students majoring in pre-engineering and/or computer information science, with a preference for minority women otherwise underrepresented in those fields. It’s off to an excellent start. With Rinne’s support, the scholarship quickly grew to a substantial size, and this year selected its first recipient – Calva-Morales. 

“This is one of the first scholarships to help narrow the gap of opportunity for an underrepresented group in a particular area of study,” Stephenson said. “It’s important that we nurture diverse people and help them understand that there is a place in science for them, too.”  

Calva-Morales said receiving the scholarship not only solidified her decision to go to college but that it also helps her focus on her classwork. 

“The scholarship helps me so that I don’t have to worry about how I will get money for tuition as most of it is covered,” Calva-Morales said. 

“STEM is a field that is ripe with opportunity if you can get the chance to get into it,” Rinne said. “That’s all most of these women need, is just the opportunity. And that’s one area where a place like Washburn can help.”

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1729 MacVicar Avenue
Topeka, KS 66604 Phone: 785.670.4483