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Alumna Sophia Economides on her commitment to widening participation and the need for a more diverse workforce in the engineering sector

Sophia Economides (MPhil Technology Policy, 2010) is an Associate Professor (Teaching) at the Faculty of Engineering at UCL, and she is the lead for the new Engineering Foundation Year Program.

In this article she talks about her work on widening participation and what inspired her to pursue this path.

The Engineering Foundation Year Program is going to offer students with high potential from underrepresented groups the opportunity to study engineering at UCL.  It is for students from areas with a high index of multiple deprivation, from low performing state schools, students with disabilities or young carers, from underrepresented ethnic groups as well as mature students with non-traditional qualifications, among others. The programme will prepare students for study in one of UCL's engineering courses by bridging their skills gap and will offer pastoral support to help them thrive at UCL. It will start in the 2023-24 academic year and at the moment I am working on setting up and organising it. This involves the coordination of several activities, some of which are: fundraising for bursaries and scholarships, raising awareness of the programme to potential students and to those who interact with them, determining how the programme will operate, developing the curriculum and recruiting more staff. 

Widening participation is about bringing the opportunities of higher education to all, regardless of background, and it has been a UK government strategy for a long time. This is not just an issue of individual progress. It is well documented that societies with higher levels of education are more stable and enjoy better economic and social outcomes, so we all benefit from widening participation. And if we look at the engineering sector, a more diverse workforce is a more creative and innovative workforce that will better serve the needs of society. 

I studied Electrical Engineering in Greece and I came to the UK to do a PhD in RF electronics at King's College London and in 2010 I started studying at Cambridge Judge Business School for an MPhil in Technology Policy in 2010.

As an engineer I knew a lot about technology but not much about the decision making that determines how technology affects us. The description of Lucy Cavendish College appealed to me. I felt that my needs as a student would be better served there, where I’d have more opportunities to meet like-minded people and be part of an inclusive community.

Immediately after my PhD I worked in the space industry for a few years, but I always wanted to return to academia, so I got a part-time teaching job with the Open University. This job, which I initially thought would be temporary, exposed me to the problems of mature students and students with disabilities, and I became a strong advocate for equal access to higher education. I also did an MA in Online and Distance Education, with a special interest in disability in higher education. Eventually my OU job led me to other widening participation institutions, where I got to work with young people from non-traditional backgrounds. In addition to teaching and managing courses, I organised pastoral and academic support programmes for students and I developed and ran outreach activities for schools, promoting STEM careers. 

During my year at Lucy I met some amazing people and all members of staff were friendly and genuinely cared about the wellbeing of students. I try to come back to Lucy as often as my commitments allow and I always bring along guests because I want them to experience the positive atmosphere, the relaxed attitude and the sense of community. Everyone here is like an old friend.