Vergnano Endowed Chair for Inclusion Established at the College of Engineering



Mark and Betsy (Reddington) Vergnano at the UConn Foundation Board Social at the Alumni Center Great Hall in Storrs, CT, on October 15, 2023. (Roger Castonguay/Defining Studios)

For the second time in two years, the generosity of UConn alumni Mark and Betsy (Reddington) Vergnano is shaping the future of engineering education at UConn.

The couple made a $3 million gift this fall to establish the Vergnano Endowed Chair for Inclusion within the College of Engineering. Support for this faculty position, in addition to new programs and staff support, will build upon the impact the Vergnano Institute for Inclusion is already having on students.

“We are so grateful for the continued support of Mark and Betsy Vergnano,” says UConn College of Engineering Dean Kazem Kazerounian. “The Vergnano Institute for Inclusion has unified our efforts in diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. These founders inspire our faculty, staff, students, and alumni to aim higher, break boundaries, and work better together. I am particularly enthusiastic about the new chair, and I look forward to everything they do to lead us forever, united and stronger than ever before.”

Expanded Support for the Vergnano Institute

An initial $3 million gift from the Vergnanos in 2021 established the Institute, which is dedicated to increasing the number of underserved students in engineering and other STEM fields. The Institute provides scholarships, mentoring programs and development resources to help students succeed both during their time at UConn but also after graduation, whether that is in the workforce or academia. Inspired by the Institute’s success thus far, the Vergnanos decided to expand their involvement and support.

“We have learned that scholarships are very helpful, but to ensure the students’ successful matriculation, there is a need for continued support over their four years,” Mark Vergnano explains. “We wanted to make sure that scholarships, content, and leadership are all part of the Institute.”

It was also important to the Vergnanos that students within the Institute felt continued support in the wake of the national conversation around equity, justice and inclusion in higher education and the workplace.

Building on the Institute’s Success

Currently, 45% of students in the College of Engineering come from underserved educational backgrounds that have been historically overlooked within the field. And the retention rate for students participating in the Institute is above the national average for engineering students. And this is just the beginning.

“The students within the Institute are building a community,” says Vergnano. “Since our initial gift, Betsy and I have seen these amazing students elevate themselves into leadership positions throughout the College and across the entire campus.”

The Institute is also attracting significant interest from the Connecticut engineering industry as businesses look for a pipeline of diverse talent. Some of these companies are adding their support through scholarships and internship programs in hopes of bolstering the state’s engineering workforce.

Patriots Cheerleader speaks at UConn’s Annual Black Women in STEM Brunch

Patriots Cheerleader speaks at UConn's Annual Black Women in STEM Brunch

Akosua Adzenyah discussed representation, setting high goals, and balancing her jobs as a dentist and New England Patriots Cheerleader at her alma mater on Saturday.

West Hartford high schoolers participate in Sisters in STEM program

Michael Walsh

WEST HARTFORD — Students at both high schools recently participated in the University of Connecticut’s Sisters in STEM conference, designed to expose more young Black and Latina girls to the field.

Jackie Corricelli, who is a Conard High School math and computer science teacher and the district’s computer science curriculum specialist, said there is a very apparent underrepresentation those girls in their programs.

Using her own experience as a woman navigating the STEM field in high school and college, Corricelli wants to build a more welcoming environment for girls in West Hartford that she didn’t quite have when she was their age.

“In general our most underrepresented population is females,” Corricelli said. “Our most underrepresented population in computer science are Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Hispanic females. Anything I can do for female empowerment and to help students feel more welcome than I did, I want to do.”

The free program, designed by UConn’s Vergnano Institute of Inclusion, provided a day of educational and hands-on exercises. Thirty total sophomores participated at both Conard and Hall High School.

Among them was Sasha Belabe, a Conard student who is eager to make a splash in STEM.

“I knew I was going to do this,” Belabe said. “Right now I’m taking geometry and I’m really engaged in that class. I like the mathematics field. I’m thinking about going into STEM.”

Belabe proudly showed off creations the group had made during the morning portion of the conference, including a bath bomb and a badge that lights up.

“At first it wasn’t lighting up,” Belabe said. “It was so rigorous. When it lit up, I lit up. I’m really excited to go show my family. I’m really excited about this.”

After their lunch break, the group was going to tackle racism and activism in the STEM field. Those discussions, Belabe said, were very meaningful.

“It is important,” Belabe said. “Girls think it might be something only guys do or a men’s thing, so they don’t want to do computer science. But if they see a panel of women and they talk about what they do in computer science, women would be more inclined to go into it.”

Corricelli said she hoped that by bringing the program to West Hartford, some students might see STEM as a viable path for them.

“We are always looking for more females to sign up. It’s a sad state of affairs,” Corricelli said. “We’ve got no shortage of problems in the country. We need more perspectives to solve those problems.”

Belabe said the problem is that field can be intimidating when you feel like an outsider. What helps, she added, was being inspired by other women who have broken through in the field.

“I feel that is scary,” Belabe said. “I feel like I won’t get as far or I won’t be as good as them. But someone has to overcome so other people can do it. There has to be the firsts, which can open the gate to a lot of other minority women joining.”

Aniyah Walker, another Conard student, said she participated in a similar STEM camp over the summer, so she was eager to join the conference.

“There aren’t a lot of minorities in STEM, but also not a lot of women in STEM,” Walker said. “I’ve always been into women empowerment and inclusion. It’s something that is slowly changing but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Alexandra Santana, also a Conard sophomore, said she’s possibly looking at taking an AP level computer science class at the school next year.

“I signed up to be a computer science ambassador here, and the reason why is because there’s not even a lot of Black women at this school, and especially in computer science,” Santana said. “I do really like computer science a lot.”

Corricelli, who has a 13-year-old daughter, said the day was all about opening doors to people that in the past have remained closed.

“We’ve got to get better,” Corricelli said. “Things are supposed to improve. Just like they did for me, things are supposed to improve for these girls. They shouldn’t have to work as hard as I did to be able to create these opportunities. It’s all about more perspectives. If you walk around with one eye closed, you’re only seeing half the world.”

Written by Michael Walsh

Engineering Her Best Self

Courtney Luker

“It’s 2022. It’s crazy that being a woman in engineering is still such a big deal.”

Courtney LukerIt’s no surprise that Courtney Luker ’22 (ENG) enjoyed Playmobil when she was a kid. Lots of children do. But not too many mention their devotion to this iconic, people-centric, role-playing, let’s-build-something-fun collection on their college applications. She did.

A native of Glastonbury, Connecticut, Luker will graduate with a degree in biomedical engineering in May. And yes, her father is an engineer. And yes, her sister Kelly graduated from UConn with a degree in chemical engineering in 2012. Both have been good role models. But Luker’s interest in figuring out how things work by taking them apart and putting them back together again was obvious from the time she was a toddler.

She laughs when she describes one of her nascent experiments that involved making a snow sled from cardboard and duct tape she found in the family garage, and then using her creation in an attempt to slide down Buttonball Hill in her hometown. “That experiment,” she says with a sigh, “did not go particularly well.”

After two years of summer internships with medical device company Medtronic, Luker has accepted a full-time position with the company following graduation. She’ll begin a two-year rotational program in their medical surgical department in North Haven, Connecticut. That will be followed by further experience the following year in either Boston or Boulder, Colorado. An avid hiker, she says Boulder sounds enticing. Then again, she considers herself an “East Coast person,” so if Boston wins out, that’s okay, too.

Luker is part of a growing contingent of women entering the engineering profession. She says she’s proud of UConn’s commitment to eliminating gender inequality in this field, and also of the fact that women make up 31% of this year’s freshmen engineering majors — the highest percentage to date.

She’s quick to point out, however, that, “It’s 2022. It’s crazy that being a woman in engineering is still such a big deal.”

As president of the UConn chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Luker is intent on paying it forward to honor the upperclassmen who helped her get acclimated when she arrived on campus in the fall of 2018.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the women in SWE who mentored me when I was new to UConn,” she says. “I asked them all sorts of questions, from what to wear to interviews for internships to advice about courses.”

Luker talks about how it felt, in her second year, to be one of only three women in a discussion/lab section of an electrical engineering course. “To be honest, that was intimidating. But with the support and encouragement of junior and senior women, I made it through. That’s something I’ll never forget.”

Now she’s intent on mentoring other inquisitive girls and young women who are considering engineering as a career. One way she does that is through Multiply Your Options, which reaches out to 8th-grade girls in local schools, providing demonstrations and hands-on exposure to various engineering disciplines. “With more programs like this we can continue to decrease gender inequality in engineering.” Thanks to her experiences with SWE, Luker has been inspired to be what she calls “the best version of myself.” To that end, her immediate goal is to become an expert in medical product development, and ultimately share her knowledge with surgeons in hospital settings.

But, she adds with a smile, “I’ve really enjoyed the management side of being a leader — in SWE — and helping people perform their duties. I’m now actually thinking that an MBA might be in my future, too.”


Santos Appointed Associate Director of EDOC, Assistant Professor-in-Residence in BME

Stephany Santos, left, a graduate student of biomedical engineering, shows research on knee cartilage to State Senator Cathy Osten, State Rep. Gregg Haddad ’89 (CLAS) and State Senator Mae Flexer ’02 (CLAS) during a tour of the the Engineering & Science Building on June 11, 2018. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

By: Eli Freund, Editorial Communications Manager, UConn School of Engineering

Last week, Stephany Santos, a recent Ph.D. graduate in Biomedical Engineering, was appointed associate director of the Engineering Diversity and Outreach Center and made an assistant professor-in-residence in the Biomedical Engineering Department.

After nearly 10 years at the University of Connecticut, as an undergraduate and a graduate student, Santos has made her mark, especially in the EDOC, where she helped found Engineering Ambassadors as an undergrad–a group of hundreds of students, who help run prospective student tours, have outreach programs in local schools, and much more.

We recently sat down with Santos, and asked her about her time here, her plans for the future, and her reflections on landing her dream jobs.

  1. What will be your new title, and what responsibilities come with this new job?

I will be an assistant professor-in-residence in Biomedical Engineering, and the associate director of the Engineering Diversity and Outreach Center (EDOC). In these roles, I am excited to impact students on personal and professional levels. I will be teaching several courses, including ENGR 1166 – Foundations in Engineering, and co-teaching ENGR 1000 – Orientation to Engineering. These courses in particular deeply excite me because of how critical students’ first years are in developing a positive and robust STEM/Engineering Identity, strong and empathetic team and communication skills, and effective planning and metacognitive understanding.

As the Associate Director, I will be co-advising many of the student organizations (such as NSBE undergraduate and graduate chapters, SHPE, SWE, and EA), and developing and teaching curriculum focused on emotionally intelligent and culturally-conscious team and leadership skills. Additionally, I will help Kevin McLaughlin and Velda Alfred Abney develop workshops and programming that serve and uplift the greater SOE community, and underrepresented students in STEM.  I will continue supporting EDOC Summer programs such as BRIDGE, Explore Engineering and SPARK. Lastly, I will be conducting research in the engineering education realm to further understand our students, their communities and environment, and the impact players in this ecosystem have on each other. I’ll be seeking grants and collaborations to support this important work.

  1. You’ve been at UConn for nearly a decade between undergrad and graduate school. How does it feel to land a job here?

It still feels like I’m in a dream. I remember in elementary school I was tall for my age, so I grew up playing and loving basketball. I looked up to the great Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, and Swin Cash, and dreamed of playing basketball for UConn. Unfortunately, I stopped growing in 5th grade, and didn’t have much of a chance playing power forward at this powerhouse institution. But still, UConn became my home. Fast forward to now, to be honest, I cried when I received my offer letter from UConn. Never have I felt so wanted, supported and uplifted, and I truly thank Dean Kazem Kazerounian and Dean Dan Burkey for not only putting their names in the ring when I entered the academic job market, but for creating this incredible opportunity to be able to stay.

  1. Let’s go back to your experience here when you were an undergrad. What were some of the most defining moments during that time, and how do you want to translate those experiences to your new post in EDOC?

There are two events that I’ll bring to the table here:

(1)        I remember it was 3 a.m. on a Wednesday sophomore year. We just ordered D.P. Dough and it was set to arrive in 30 minutes. I was hangry. We had been working through a problem set since 8 PM, and I was emotionally done. I was stuck, we were getting nowhere, and I was questioning why I chose engineering. The people I was studying with were some other students that participated in the BRIDGE program at the same time I did, or as I call them, some of my BRIDGE family. We had a quick vent session, picked up each other’s pieces, and promised each other that this too shall pass, and we needed to push through. If not for us, but for the culture.

(2)        I visited a middle school at the end of sophomore year with a hands-on activity and a story about how engineers help change the world. I vividly remember one girl, who came up to me after my presentation and said “Miss, so you’re an engineer?” I nodded. She said “I want to be an engineer just like you.”

These two hallmarks showed me the importance of community and the importance of role models. Community gets us through our darkest hour, and outshines our brightest moments. Through EDOC, I hope to continue to create opportunities for students to build community and find their families away from home. Many of our students are first generation, are ‘the only’ in their classes, or may not have many other mentors or support systems. I also hope to continue EDOC’s mission of letting everyone know they are role models, and mentor up and mentor down. Every individual can have an impact on another person; you never know whose life you can change.

  1. What makes EDOC such a unique and crucial piece to the School of Engineering?

UConn has one of a handful of Diversity, Outreach, or Inclusion Centers dedicated to a School/College of Engineering in the country. When you look at what we’ve done over the past decade, and what Kevin has done since 2004, we have had a tremendous impact on students through our ever-growing programming. One of the things that makes us unique is how much trust, power, and autonomy we give students. There are not many other universities that would let undergraduate students be fully in charge of nearly every detail for an event that serves hundreds of children and their families in the community. Or, voice their ideas for a brand new large scale event (i.e. Sisters in STEM), and provide support and funding to bring it into fruition. We provide so many opportunities for students to learn different skills and grow, such as through serving as a Pre-Engineering Program (PEP) teacher where you learn to actually develop classroom curriculum, to working in the office where you learn everything from making a Pivot Table in Excel, to maintaining a website. We also provide a suite of courses, such as ENGR 3025 – Engineering for Impact, which is catered to their leadership needs and goals, and ENGR 3020, which is Confidence and Communication Skills. I’m so proud of what EDOC is, and what it will continue to grow to be as we expand programming to reach and support even more students.

  1. You were one of the founders of Engineering Ambassadors here. How have you seen that group grow, and what do you see as the future of that organization now that you’ll be focused on them and other programs administered by EDOC?

I went back through my emails recently, and found that our very first EA meeting was September 2, 2010. It is wild to see we are approaching our 10th birthday. In the beginning there were a handful of us that were dedicated to the mission (shout out to Danica Chin [Plaskolite], Kayla Johnson [Pratt & Whitney], Dan Jaramillo [Pratt & Whitney], Nick Clements [Hexcel], Cara Redding [Pratt & Whitney],  Josh Leveillee [Univ. Illinois, Urbana-Champaign] Dave Golfin [Pratt & Whitney], Alex Brittain [Global Foundries], Kim Sayre [US Government], Kim Reindl [Collins Aerospace], and many others) , now we have over 200 students who are in new branches called Presentation Team (which primarily focuses on off-campus interactions with middle school students), Tour Guides (which primarily focuses on on-campus, personalized experiences with high school students and their families), and Greater Body (which supports on-campus activities, and programming such as STEM Night at the CT Science Center, and Engineers Week at the Storrs Campus). We’ve recently even initiated expanding Engineering Ambassadors, or STEM Ambassadors at the Stamford and Avery Point campuses to better serve and reach CT schools in those areas.

Looking forward, I am excited to collaborate more with PK-12 teachers, the Neag School of Education, and CETL to create an ecosystem of teaching, learning and mentoring. We’d love to be able to train ambassadors to understand Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) so that we can work with educators to better design activities, presentations and conversations around what kids are currently learning in school. We’d also love to provide a community of practice for PK-12 teachers around the state so that teachers feel appreciated and supported, and know how they can support and help their students go to college, and become future STEM studiers and STEMinists.

  1. Why do you think you’ve stayed at UConn so long? What is it about this University and School that makes you so invested?

When I needed someone to turn to, there were people that not only answered my questions, but took me under their wing to help me to fly. There are amazing, selfless individuals such as Aida Ghiaei and Kevin McLaughlin who invest their entire souls for students to stand up and shine. Everyone deserves that mentor and advocate, and I’d like to stand alongside them to be that person for others. At UConn, you’re not a number, and if you volunteer your time to help, UConn will always have your back and reward you. I had no issues finding funding for my Masters or my PhD because of the support at UConn, and even now, seeing that the UConn School of Engineering still hired me in the middle of a pandemic while other universities are furloughing their staff, rescinding offers, and freezing hiring, shows UConn’s values and commitment to me, and to others they care about.

Of course UConn has areas for growth, particularly in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, but I see avenues for change that I can be a part of, and I can’t say that about everywhere else. I’m excited by the leadership of Dean Kazerounian and Dean Burkey, and their investment in programs and courses I’ve helped pitch such as the John Lof Leadership Academy for Graduate Students, or the BOSS LADI (Building our Sister’s Strength – Leveraging Adversity, Diversity, and Intellect) class for underrepresented women in STEM. UConn loves, and UConn loves hard.

  1. Has it always been your dream to be a professor and mentor to engineering students who are underrepresented minorities? Why? What was your inspiration?

As an undergrad, after a few years of volunteering for events like Multiply Your Options (MYO) and for NSBE and EA, I realized I loved teaching. Senior year, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, so I applied for Graduate School, Teach for America, and positions in industry. I was accepted to Teach for America, and was set to be a science teacher in Newark, NJ. Shortly after, I was accepted to be an EAGLES Fellow, which was a dual degree M.S. program in Italy and at UConn. I was incredibly torn, because I was excited to teach the kids, but I was also thrilled to be accepted to get an M.S. in Italy. I turned to then Dean Mun Choi who gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever heard, “The more you learn, the more you can teach others.” That advice kicked off my graduate school career, as well as fueled my interests in engineering education. Now, as I’ve been sharing my career plans with some of my current undergraduate mentees, I saw their eyes light up when I say I wanted to be a professor. Many expressed excitement to have a professor “like me,” which can mean a lot of things from identity (Afro-Latina, child of immigrants), to one deeply invested in individual success and well-being. I love using #ILookLikeAnEngineer or #ILookLikeAProfessor because I am breaking stigmas and stereotypes that exist in these domains, and showing students they can be one too.

  1. Now that you’ve landed your dream job, what do you hope to accomplish here at the School of Engineering?

Many of my aims come from a coalition of alumni who care (some I listed before), my mentees, and my mentors. I touched on many of my aims throughout this interview, but to summarize:

  1. Collaborate with Dean Burkey, Dean Leslie Shor, Dean Kazerounian and others to include teamwork and communication skills in undergraduate and graduate courses to minimize incidents such as microaggressions, and maximize belongingness, effectiveness, and productivity.
  2. Use evidence-based research to both assess and improve our current diversity, equity, inclusion and outreach efforts.
  3. Coordinate with other talented folx at EDOC (shout out to Esther Chang) to develop a suite of workshops, programs, courses, and trainings that uplift, inspire, and push forward individuals spanning the gamut of PK-12 students, PK-12 teachers and guidance counselors, undergraduates, graduates, staff, and faculty.

Many people say they want life to return back to ‘normal’ after COVID-19. I’ve seen others say ‘normal’ is not an option, because it includes systemic inequities in our health care, in our education, and in our access to basic needs. I agree, ‘normal’ is not an option, only forward, where empathy, communication, and progress are at the core of all we are, and all we do.

UConn Recognized as a Leader in Educating Women Engineers


The University of Connecticut School of Engineering has once again been recognized as a leader in the nation for fostering diversity and inclusion among its student and faculty population, according to a new “Top 20 Universities” list released by Woman Engineer magazine.

The list, which includes schools such as Carnegie Mellon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, and Princeton University, was determined by a survey of their 135,205 women engineering student and professional subscribers.

According to the editors, readers based the selection on criteria such as the diversity of the student base and faculty, the diversity of the curriculum, and the schools’ ability to foster a diverse and inclusive learning environment.

This honor adds to the school’s recognized work toward gender equity and diversity in an engineering industry which has struggled with recruiting and retaining underrepresented minorities.

As part of the growing recognition for UConn, The Washington Post published a survey that documented Connecticut’s flagship was the top public institution in the U.S. for growth in female undergraduates from 2010 to 2015.

On the faculty side, since fall 2017, over 40% of the school’s new hires have been female, and nearly 20% of the school’s tenure and tenure-track faculty and 38% of the assistant professor-in-residence faculty are female, both above the national average.

UConn’s School of Engineering, through the work of the Engineering Diversity and Outreach Center led by Kevin McLaughlin, has built a pipeline of underrepresented minorities students into the school.

Programs include BRIDGE, a five-week intensive summer program designed to prepare students who are underrepresented minorities to smoothly transition into UConn’s engineering curriculum. Others, such as SPARK,  seek to mentor and encourage females to enter the STEM fields through overnight summer camps.