Welcome to a continuation of my experience as a woman in engineering. If you haven’t already, please read “From Premed to Engineer” posted last month for more context on this topic. As a recap, I recently switched from Premed to Engineering, a decision that completely changed my college career. I mean completely changed. I went through my entire freshman year telling myself that the last thing I ever wanted to be was an engineer. And yet, here I am. And here are the things that I learned.
When I was first assigned to my engineering advisor halfway through my sophomore year, she met me when I was starting to give up and was looking for a fresh start in a new major. After taking my first engineering class, I was so surprised to find out I actually enjoyed it that I started to consider breaking down the mental walls that prevented me from becoming an engineer. It was hard. Right up to the minute I walked up to my advisor’s office (and to be honest, multiple times after the meeting), I kept doubting myself.
I’m not that great at math; actually, I don’t even like it. I’m not sticking to the plan of becoming a medical doctor that I set up for myself years ago. I’m already a year behind my engineering peers. I don’t know anyone in my major! And what about the gender gap that I’ve heard so much about? I don’t even know what it means to be an ‘engineer.’
Early on, those thoughts really prevented me from exploring engineering as a potential career. I tossed out the idea of being an engineer before I even considered it! If I were to give a single piece advice to anyone thinking about choosing a major, it would be to consider all options and break down mental barriers. I’m sure glad I did. I was unsatisfied with my education, and yearned for something different. I was desperate for something new, and that desperation led me to my advisor’s door with a Materials Science major declaration sheet in my hand.
It took a lot of courage to say—to even think—that maybe premed wasn’t right for me. However, I would say that it took even more courage to admit that my stereotyped and preconceived ideas about engineering prevented me from discovering a field that I enjoyed more than my premedical studies. It took a lot of courage to admit that I was premed for all the wrong reasons and that the only reason why I didn’t want to become an engineer was out of fear.
But I learned that it is a struggle worth having, and for the millionth time, I would tell anyone who is on the fence to struggle with yourself. That isn’t to say that my fears weren’t justified. In fact, I learned that (unfortunately), many of my fears about engineering were partially (if not entirely) true. It is true that I had to take a lot more math than what was required by my premed curriculum and that classes are more quantitative. It is true that I had to learn to depend on others and to discover what it means to be an effective team member. It is true that there are fewer women in engineering and that there inevitably were classes in which I could count all the females on one hand. It is true that there were times that I felt discouraged because I come from a low-income background.
BUT I learned that regardless of the intimidation and roadblocks that I would face due to my background and my inexperience, this was an opportunity. I realized that people would put me into certain categories: female, first generation, low income, etc. I got so bogged down by others’ labels I didn’t step back to realize that, really, they don’t matter. Being at Stanford certainly doesn’t make me impervious to judgment and profiling. It was important for me to realize that though those labels do represent a lot of my identity, I am also so much more.
I learned that my success is not limited to labels. I realized that not only can I become an engineer, but that I would. Those labels didn’t have to work against me. In fact, they motivate me to become better. Yes, most of my preconceived fears about engineering were true. And yes, I have and will continue to struggle in engineering due to these labels. But instead of being limited by them, I can expand upon those labels to describe myself more adequately. Here’s how:
I am a:
- female….and I’m capable of anything
- low income student….and I am a hard worker who is motivated by my past
- minority student…and I have a vibrant cultural background that I am proud of
- first generation student…and I am motivated to succeed by my parents, who have given up so much in this new country so that my future could be my own
- inexperienced engineer…and I am excited about all the ways I can grow through learning about engineering’s potential in innovation
Not only are these expanded labels more accurate, but they are also labels of which I am proud.
On top of breaking free of the walls that labeling has set up, one of the more challenging things I had to learn was to work with others. I have always been independent in my studies and I am often intimidated to ask for others for help. College taught me that I should be a teacher’s pet and that there was no shortage of people who would help me if I asked. Since I had recently declared and literally knew no one else in the major, I really had to go out of my way to form study groups and make new friends. Everyone has a different schedule and a different way of approaching homework and projects, so I had to learn to work with them efficiently. Being the newbie in the major, I was not used to the Materials Science mindset and even the introductory material was occasionally difficult for me to wrap my head around. Though times like those were very discouraging, I found the support of my newfound friends and study groups essential.
I learned that ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ are two different things. Though I was technically already declared as an engineer, I didn’t feel like an engineer. I am actually still learning what it means to be an engineer. Though under my name in my school’s electronic system was a label: Materials Science Engineering, I certainly had to learn to become one. From starting to think about pursing engineering to actually declaring as an engineer and starting my studies, I really had to go out of my comfort zone in order to ‘become’. I encourage you to do the same. Remember, you don’t have to be limited by stereotypes or by other people’s words. If you feel discouraged by labels, change them so that they can be labels that you are proud of.
There is a certain line from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream that has really given me strength over the years, so much so that I actually have a necklace with this inscription that I carry around whenever I need a boost of courage: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Just as a side note for you readers out there, I am indeed ‘little’ (I’m 5’2). So be fierce. Strive not only to ‘be,’ but to ‘become.’