VP of Engagement leaves FIU to become provost

Nicole Montero/Staff Writer

In a society where women and minorities are underrepresented in the fields of science and technology, one of the University’s STEM role models, Irma Becerra-Fernandez, has worked to make a difference.

“It’s hard to believe that, when I went to school, there were more women in these fields than there are now,” she said.

She was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in engineering at the University and rose to become the vice president of the Office of Engagement, helping the University reach recognition for their contributions to the community, according to a Sept. 2 memorandum from University President Mark Rosenberg.

“FIU, as a minority-majority university, has an even more important responsibility in that the nation is going to be looking at us to see what we’re doing to get minorities interested in successfully completing STEM careers,”  Becerra-Fernandez said.

Now she is saying goodbye to FIU to continue rising as an academic leader as the new Provost and Chief Academic Officer at St. Thomas University, starting Oct. 1.

As a female engineer, Becerra-Fernandez has frequently given talks about women in STEM fields – particularly in computer science. In recent years, she has observed that the percentage of women in computer science and information technology fields has declined.

“This is a really alarming issue because we have observed that whenever you have diversity in a field, the field is strengthened,” she said.

As prior Vice Provost of Academic Affairs, Becerra-Fernandez was involved in interventions to help students succeed in STEM fields. She lead a task force that looked at how to improve the success rate of students taking college algebra.

“We observed that the passing rate was about 30 percent, so two of every three students would fail the class,” she said.

According to Becerra, the findings of the task force was to make an initiative to teach college algebra using a new pedagogical intervention, which involved the math lab – where students go every week and do an online component of the class.

After the task force, Becerra and her team noted that the intervention was a success – with an increased passing rate of over 50 percent.

“Irma has been a leader, a friend and a mentor to many at FIU,” said Rosenberg in the memorandum.  “I am grateful to her for the role she has played in ensuring FIU’s place among the nation’s leading community engaged universities.”

Liana Apolis, a senior biology major, said that female mentors have helped her reach her potential in some fields where women tend to be a minority – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“It is very inspiring and humbling to see women who are able to fight against the odds to get where they are today and succeed in their careers,” said Apolis. “But it is true that there are very few.”

As Vice President for Engagement, Becerra-Fernandez’s role is to serve as a portal for the community and to put partnerships together.

Among the list of partnerships, Becerra-Fernandez helped create programs to improve academics and rankings at at Miami Northwestern Senior High School, which traditionally had been ranked as a D and F school. Now, with the education initiative, the school earned its first A-ranking last December.

Due to the success in Miami Northwestern, Becerra and her team started the Education Effect initiative in another high school – Booker T. Washington – with a focus on Astronomy and Engineering.

“Each of these Education Effect partnerships have a STEM-personalized focus capitalizing on the assets that the school already has: Agroecology at Miami Northwestern and Astronomy and Engineering at Booker T. Washington,” Becerra said.

She believes that there is a greater need to prepare students for the careers of the future — careers that incorporate science and technology — and that these partnerships are essential to getting more students interested in STEM careers.

“I want to send a message of encouragement to all our students,” she said. “Everybody can do it — you can be successful.”


About the Author

Camila Fernandez
A FIU School of Journalism and Mass Communications Student - Began working with Student Media in 2013.

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