Helene Finger, who has helped Cal Poly’s Society of Women Engineers become one of the largest and most successful SWE sections in the nation, has been recognized with the 2019 Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award, which will be presented to her during the annual SWE conference in Anaheim Nov. 9.
Finger, who joined the Civil/Environmental Engineering Department as a faculty member in 1997, became director of the Women’s Engineering Program and advisor to the SWE in 2000. During that time, the Cal Poly SWE has risen to national prominence with several Outstanding Collegiate Section awards. Meanwhile, Finger’s recruitment efforts have helped increase the percentage of freshmen female engineering students at Cal Poly from 11.8 percent in 2004 to 28.1 percent in 2018.
“It was a group effort to get here,” Finger said. “A lot of students mentor me as I mentor them.”
As a female civil engineering student at Cal Poly in the 80s, Finger knows how it feels to be outnumbered.
“In those days, there weren’t many women so we congregated,” she said.
When students of a certain group are outnumbered, she said, those in underrepresented groups are often treated as tokens, expected to represent everyone from their group.
“That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone, to represent everyone,” she said. “It’s a lot of weight for you to carry.”
As advisor, Finger has helped female students overcome those feelings.
“We know that having confidence is crucial to succeeding in school, social settings and industry,” said College of Engineering Dean Amy S. Fleischer. “And Helene is providing that confidence through her inspiring leadership. The success of Cal Poly SWE, in particular, has had a far-reaching impact that is evident in our alumni who are now making a major difference in their careers.”
With Finger’s guidance, Cal Poly SWE has hosted 30 outreach events a year, connecting with over 3,000 students through activities targeting K-12 students. She has helped garner over $100,000 in corporate and private sponsorships annually, including $40,000 in scholarships for Cal Poly SWE members. And she has encouraged alumni to remain engaged and act as inspirations for new students.
She helped establish Engineering Possibilities in College (EPIC), which seeks to encourage students from middle and high school to pursue engineering careers, and she is a regular at SWE events, attending SWE meetings, corporate events, conferences and outreach efforts.
Finger is particularly good at recognizing talent, noted Tracy Van Houten, a former student who now works as a spacecraft systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“One of her most powerful traits as faculty advisor is in identifying potential in younger members, encouraging them to take on leadership roles and then mentoring them into confident, proficient and self-sufficient leaders for all levels of SWE,” Van Houten wrote to the SWE awards committee.
Finger said she sees leadership in those who are especially active and engaged.
“Everybody has potential,” she said. “It really comes from people’s desire.”
Finger also is the retention chair for the College of Engineering’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee. And she is involved in the community, helping to extend the Bob Jones Trail from San Luis Obispo to Avila Beach.
While Finger has won several awards in the past, she said she’s most proud of this one.
“It just recognizes me as a faculty advisor, which is the role I’m most passionate about,” she said.