Confessions and Observations of an Accidental Engineer

I will admit – going into engineering was never a question for me. I never considered anything else. So, for me it is a surprise every time I hear about women not going in to a field because they are female. However, as I read the statistics, I know it’s true. Studies have shown that women are now being encouraged to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) based careers. I was never encouraged to it, but in my mind it was the only possible path.

 Secondly, when I went in to engineering, I honestly had no clue what engineering was. I only had a small clue about civil engineering, and not any of the other disciplines such as chemical, electrical, computer, mechanical, aerospace….I was pretty naive. 

So if you asked me, when I was in college why I was in engineering I think I would have looked at you like you had two heads. I had no idea, but to me it was the only obvious choice to get a job where you know what you will do as a professional. Wasn’t it obvious to you? And honestly, I didn’t really know what it meant at that time….it just seemed that way. 

My first year in school threw me for a loop. As in I was totally unprepared for what to expect. I floundered, I struggled, and I learned. I wasn’t failing, but wasn’t getting good grades either. I had no idea what things were. The professor in my Physics practical session, Dr. Marvin Campbell, may have been my saving grace. I was in his office almost daily and learned to take a problem apart and start to understand how to solve it. It was a skill I used throughout college and beyond. As soon as I started to try shortcuts, I would struggle. But if I would take a step back and learn the theory behind it, and figure out what I was solving, I did OK. Dr. Campbell never suggested that I take an easier path….he just helped me find a way to solve problems.

 What I am saying is – I was never encouraged to engineering, but never discouraged. I went in to my major in college without an understanding of what engineering is (or many other professional choices). I made it – I worked hard and graduated, went to graduate school, got a job, made choices and…have learned a lot!

Did I pick the right career path for me? I can’t say. But it has been quite the experience and I enjoy what I get to do daily. But really – that’s not why I am writing!

 Now – fast forward to last fall. Carol Rieg, a colleague at where I work, sent me an email asking if I wanted to represent Bentley on an organizational committee for an inaugural TransportationYOU symposium involving girls ages 16 – 18, from across the country, in Washington DC.   Always on the lookout for a volunteer opportunity, I said “Yes.” Carol had asked me as I fit the criteria: female and an engineer.

 TransportationYOU is a program that focuses on girls ages 13 – 18, and guiding them towards careers in the transportation industry.  It is a joint program between WTS International and the US DOT (US Department of Transportation).

 My experience with the program was amazing. I saw mentors and their mentees working together to solve problems, the mentors talking and bonding with the girls – encouraging them to learn about careers in transportation. The girls in this program are being given information about potential career paths. They are being given an opportunity to ask questions, to see if it is a good fit for them before they go to college, and being given direction for their professional life. Information like this is invaluable as it can help you decide on courses in high school and influence your preparation for college. I met incredible women with a variety of careers in the Transportation Industry doing incredible things and with a vision that awed me. These are some impressive women who have worked hard and accomplished more than I can put here. But these women make things happen.

 My big take away from this was…and this is huge (as in a revelation for me!)these girls are being shown, at an early stage in their professional career, that they aren’t alone and they don’t have to do it all alone. Having felt the pressures and attempting to do it on my own (because I thought I had to), this is a refreshing and invaluable point of view. So many of the amazing women we met mentioned having mentors that they learned from and could go to with their challenges. Wow!

I had an epiphany (almost) with the realization that to focus on a STEM career you will have to work hard, but you don’t have to be alone. And not being alone that can make the difference between misery and happiness, failure and success, and even stagnation and progress in one’s career.  

 The young women being mentored through Transportation YOU are receiving invaluable guidance. A part of me wished I had a similar opportunity, or knew enough to take advantage of such opportunities early on instead of slogging through on my own trying to figure things out. But, that I can’t change. What I can change is to encourage professionals in STEM based careers to take an opportunity to mentor a student and help them make informed decisions about their future, and to help them find their passion.  

Even better – if you have found a job you are passionate about – STEM based or not – considering mentoring a student to help them see if that is their passion in life, or if they should look around some more. Your experience can enrich a person’s life beyond making their livelihood just a job – but a passion. WTS is more than just STEM – it is women in transportation – and my eyes were opened to how many education paths can lead to a role in the transportation industry: lawyers, public relations, computer programming…you name it. Transportation is HUGE!

 Seeing the positive effects of mentoring makes me want to go out and mentor, instead of my frequent and temporary role in STEM projects.  I will. When and where I haven’t decided yet. But I will be seeking out opportunities.

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One thought on “Confessions and Observations of an Accidental Engineer

  1. I enjoyed reading your post. I especially noticed your experience “not having a clue” what engineering was at first. I have been an engineer for 25 years and I desire to help youth consider engineering or other STEM disciplines as a career. I didn’t know much about it before college, but it has been a wonderful career. Please enjoy some of my free fictionalized engineering stories on my blog. Good luck to you.

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