Owuor, a sophomore environmental engineering major from Lubbock, shares her thoughts on being a Red Raider and making Texas Tech a more diverse, equitable and inclusive campus.
In 1923, Texas Tech University welcomed its first class of 914 students. Since then, the university has grown to include more than 40,000 people who come from their hometowns around the world to teach, learn and work at Texas Tech.
In 2019, the university achieved official designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), an effort of the entire university community serving the needs of its diverse campus. The HSI designation makes Texas Tech eligible for up to $10 million in additional funding from the U.S. Department of Education to support the enhancement of educational opportunities for all students. As the Texas Tech community celebrates this achievement, students, faculty and staff are taking a moment to reflect not just on their own time in Raiderland, but to also celebrate those who have worked to make Texas Tech a more diverse, equitable and inclusive campus.
Juliet Owuor of Lubbock is an environmental engineering major in the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering. When Owuor began attending Texas Tech in August 2017, she already had two years of research activity under her belt, thanks in part to a paid summer internship with the university's Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Program (REAP), led by Stephen Bayne, associate chairman for graduate studies and a professor in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.
Texas Tech partners with the Army Educational Outreach Program to offer the program, which focuses on developing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) competencies among high school students from groups historically underrepresented and underserved in STEM, such as females and minorities. As a part of REAP, Owuor worked with faculty and doctoral students on environmental engineering research, work she has continued as an undergraduate researcher in the Texas Tech McNair Scholars Program, a graduate school preparatory program for undergraduate students from historically underrepresented groups who demonstrate strong academic potential for graduate research and studies.
We sat down with Owuor to learn more about her and her experiences at Texas Tech.
What types of activities have you been involved in during your time at Texas Tech?
Before being accepted into REAP during high school, Owuor said she knew she wanted to study engineering, but didn't know what type. Once she began working with her mentor Andrew Jackson, a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental & Construction Engineering who studies life support systems at the International Space Station, she knew environmental engineering was the field she wanted to pursue.
"Dr. Bayne introduced me to Dr. Jackson first, and Dr. Jackson has had me in the lab," Owuor said. "He's allowed me to grow and taken me to conferences. I've done projects of my own to help with his research and found other things I've wanted to do."
The first project Owuor worked on involved building a miniature bioreactor in search of a way to recycle water on the space station more efficiently and with less chemicals.
"It was the first time there was a real project I could actually describe, and I could see myself doing this research in the future and enjoying what I do," Owuor said. "That was the first step. I've learned so much in the lab. I'm the youngest person in the lab. I started as a freshman and it's really cool, because I get to see what the other students are doing for their projects. Being able to have that tangible experience right in front of me really helps. Now, I know what I want in my future. That's huge. Because of these people, I've been able to do things that I don't think many sophomores get to do."
As a McNair Scholar, Owuor has continued her work with Jackson in search of ways to recycle wastewater using the plants on the space station and the bioreactors that use bacteria instead of chemicals to clean the wastewater.
"The McNair Program helps underrepresented students in higher education get into graduate programs," Owuor said. "They help you get started in research, help you learn how to write papers, and you get to do a project with a professor. You basically go through the process so you know what you're doing when you get to graduate school, which is very important when you don't have anyone else who can tell you what to expect."
She also is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers and Mentor Tech, a program within the Division of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion that seeks to enhance the educational experiences of students with a focus on underrepresented groups through faculty and staff mentors while engaging in various programs, services, advocacy and community involvement.
How do you personally relate to your major and research activities at Texas Tech?
Owuor said her connection to her research is linked to her experiences growing up in Kenya, then in several U.S. cities while her father completed his degree.
"It goes back to not thinking about the normal resources we use on a daily basis," Owuor said. "I've been in situations where we didn't have something as simple as a glass of water, and we had to go far to get it. You just use things in your house, and you don't think about where it comes from. This really puts it into perspective, because every little thing you do matters, especially at the space station."
She said what really sold her on her major, and research in general, was the impact her work will have not just now, but for future researchers and space explorers.
"I love that I'm contributing to something bigger than myself," Owuor said. "I'm not just getting a degree at the end of the day, I'm going to be contributing to other explorations, like Mars, or expanding the station. We're adding information that's going to help future generations. My dream is to contribute to the station. I don't know if I want to go there yet. But I want to add to the research on how astronauts' lives are impacted. They have to live there. Making sure the conditions they have are actually good for them is very important."
What motivates you to continue the work you're doing at the university?
Owuor said while it's not just one person or thing that keeps her motivated, Bayne has been a huge influence on her because of his focus and results-driven attitude.
"That's the first thing I learned when I met him," Owuor said. "He doesn't believe in not achieving your goals. There's no other option – you are going to succeed. It's about the work you put in and not necessarily the goals you have. Even if you reach the goal, it's about how hard you can work to get there. I love the structure it gives me, and it also feels good knowing he's proud of what I am doing."
Jackson also has served as a motivator for Owuor through his hands-on approach to engaging Owuor in the research lab.
"He's allowed me to practice with him, and I don't feel like I'm ever just going to work," Owuor said. "I'm not just doing random things. I can ask questions. I'm really learning."
As Texas Tech approaches its 100th year, with a community that is its most diverse ever, what impact do you think you and your fellow students can have in regards to creating a campus environment that reflects diversity, equity and inclusion?
As an ambassador for REAP, Owuor said she visits with high school students to encourage them to consider Texas Tech. She said one of the most important things she and her peers can do is to shut down negative thoughts that can make a person give up before they even try.
"It's about letting people know that they can try something, even if it's super crazy, or it's just something that you want, but you're scared," she said. "It makes a huge difference when I go there and tell them, 'I was in your shoes, and I really didn't feel I could do research. But I just took a leap, and I got in and started working.'"
It's also making them – and current students – aware of the resources available to them when they feel overwhelmed or out of place.
"When they step foot on campus, there are organizations they can go to, professors they can talk to, and also, other students," Owuor said. "Knowing you can go to even a small meeting where there's free pizza, or study with a couple friends can make you feel included. When you see someone struggling, sometimes all it takes is a conversation."
Owuor said students also have to make themselves available to be included.
"The one thing that I have seen is they don't let themselves be part of groups, because they have a mentality that, 'Oh, I'm different, I'm not going to be accepted, nothing that I do is going make me feel like this is my place,'" she said. "So they shut down and don't do anything about it.
"I know for me, being Black and a woman in STEM, you have to prove the first time you meet people that you are capable. But just because you have to prove it doesn't mean it's a bad thing. Texas Tech is a predominantly white school, but that doesn't mean we're not included. It doesn't mean you can't get into the things you want to do. It's just like life, where there are people who won't accept you ever no matter what. Then there are those who are there to help if they see you want to work for it."
Can you tell us of a faculty or staff member who made an impact on your life and your work?
Owuor said while Bayne, Jackson and all of her fellow researchers have left a lasting impression on her, there are many more across campus who have done the same, like Janet McKelvey, a staff member in the electrical and computer engineering department.
"She's my mom on campus," Owuor said. "Just hearing 'I'm proud of you' is extremely important, because I know I came here for a reason and she reminds me of that every day. I'm here to succeed, and I can do it. She's been my rock, my support, when I'm stressing out, or I just need someone to tell me that I'm going to be OK, that what I'm doing is not wrong, it's just hard work, and I have to get there."
She said the McNair Program and Mentor Tech also have been sources of support.
"In McNair, we have weekly meetings, and they really do wonder how I'm doing, if everything is going great, if I have any problems," Owuor said. "My mentor in Mentor Tech was really adamant about what I'd done to improve my GPA, and how we can make it better."
Together, all of these supporters have given her something important to her success.
"I feel like I have a family here," Owuor said. "To me, that makes all the difference."
As Texas Tech University continues to achieve excellence, it's stories like Juliet Owuor's that let students know that from here, it's possible.