The USC Viterbi School of Engineering prides itself on encouraging diversity. Its Center for Engineering Diversity (CED) has a single goal, according to its website: to “assist in the recruitment, retention, and graduation of students from historically underrepresented backgrounds pursuing engineering degrees.”
One such diversity advocacy group is QuEST: Queers in Engineering, Science and Technology. Despite its young age – it was founded only in 2014 –, the QuEST club has flourished on USC’s campus. And one person who has been instrumental in the club’s impressive success over the past four years is Maria Bacci.
Bacci, a senior majoring in chemical engineering with a polymers and materials science emphasis, joined QuEST her first semester of her freshman year, coincidentally, the same year the club was founded. She began taking on leadership roles and responsibilities as soon as possible, serving on the executive board her freshman and sophomore year, and serving as co-president her junior year, alongside USC Viterbi’s Emily Palmer, a senior chemical engineering major with a sustainable energy concentration.
“This has been an amazing opportunity to help create a space that I didn’t think would exist when I got to college,” Bacci said. “I never imagined there would be a club specifically for LGBTQ engineers, so it was really cool to be able to take the lead with planning and coordinating events, seeing those come to fruition, and witnessing the bonds that formed between club members as a result of our hard work.”
Two QuEST memories especially stand out for Bacci. The first is the club’s mentorship program with Northrop Grumman’s pride organization and LGBTQ resource group. This collaboration pairs QuEST students with Northrop Grumman employees who are also members of their company’s LGBTQ resource group. Together, they plan various events throughout the semester, such as hikes and picnics, to give the groups the chance to interact as much as possible and really get to know each other.
“It was great to be able to talk to someone who was five, six years out in their career and have the opportunity to ask them questions, for example what it’s like to be ‘out’ in the workplace,” Bacci said.
Bacci’s other memorable experience occurred during her tenure as co-president. Under her leadership, USC QuEST sent 12 people to oSTEM (Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), QuEST’s national conference in Denver, Colorado. This was the largest delegation ever from USC. USC QuEST also applied for and received funding from a variety of resources, making the trip completely free for its members.
“That whole experience was definitely one of the coolest things from my time in QuEST,” Bacci said. “Seeing the amount of support that gathered around our cause was really great.”
At USC, Bacci also discovered her inner-entrepreneur. She and four other USC Viterbi students cofounded a start-up called LightTech, which is developing a solar-powered, all-in-one water filtration system that uses membrane distillation. LightTech recently participated in the Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship Challenge; it was among four teams chosen to receive additional project funding to accelerate their nascent start-up into a viable business.
Bacci does not merely excel in the world of extracurriculars. She is also very serious about her studies. She made it one of her goals coming into college to push herself and get a well-rounded education. She has taken advantage of USC’s academic opportunities by taking classes outside her major, such as poetry and ballroom dancing, while simultaneously enjoying how much chemical engineering has challenged her over the past four years.
She has clearly risen to the challenge. Bacci has made the Dean’s list all seven consecutive times. She expects to graduate magna cum laude with a 3.8 GPA.
“It’s all work I never knew I could do,” Bacci said. “If I’d just looked at the work load before starting I would have been like, ‘there’s no way I’ll ever get through this,’ but it’s been a really cool challenge all the way through.”
More than anything else, Bacci has enjoyed the people she’s met and the friends she’s made at USC.
“I have some of the best classmates ever,” she said. “When I look back on my time here at USC Viterbi, I think the coolest thing to me is how much my classmates have rubbed off on me and how much I’ve grown since my time as a high school senior because of them.”
After graduation, Bacci will work for Microsoft in its supply chain division, specifically devices in strategic sourcing and hardware, such as the Xbox, Surface, and HoloLens. Though Bacci will no longer be an active member of QuEST, she looks forward to getting involved with Microsoft’s very own LGBT resource group, GLEAM, or Gay and Lesbian Employees at Microsoft.
She is also excited to put the leadership experience she’s gained through her involvement in QuEST to good use.
“I want to be able to take the skills I’ve learned from QuEST to any company I eventually move to,” Bacci said. “Especially if you’re working at a smaller company or a start-up, it’s important to me to be able to provide those resources, those events, for employees to feel comfortable being out.”
And regarding her hopes for QuEST in the future? Bacci is confident the club will continue to thrive on USC’s campus.
“The biggest thing to look forward to is the building of community around the club,” Bacci said. “Showing students they do have this resource on campus, that they do have a space within USC Viterbi, and helping them feel like they belong as much as anyone else.”