Working ToGetHerThere: Girls in STEM Part 5
Jamie, a Chemical Engineering Student, Shares Secrets for Success
Jamie is now in her junior year at Virginia Tech (VT) studying Chemical Engineering. As a supplement to her degree, Jamie is currently participating in a cooperative (co-op) education program with VT’s Career Services. To take part in this opportunity, Jamie had to put her classes on hold for multiple semesters in order to gain work experience with Toyota Motor Manufacturing in West Virginia as a Facilities Co-op.
We wanted to get to know what it was like to be in that “in-between” phase of her life where she isn’t a full-blown engineer just yet, but is working and studying to achieve her goals. We also wanted to know what it has taken to get her this far. Read below to find out how Jamie got to where she is today, and her advice for girls interested in pursuing engineering or other STEM related careers.
How and when did you become interested in chemical engineering?
Growing up, I never learned about the field of engineering. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school when I began to explore colleges and majors; my mother suggested looking at engineering as a career field.
I had always been good at and enjoyed math and took a special interest in chemistry as well, so a path in either chemical or biomedical engineering seemed to be the right decision. Even though I didn’t know the exact discipline I wanted to go into, Virginia Tech has all freshmen enter as “Engineering Education” majors. During my first semester, I attended seminars for four different disciplines, so I could learn more about each ones, ask any questions that I had, and, finally, decide the path I wanted to follow.
What did it take for you to get into VT’s engineering program?
In high school, I took honors math and science classes along with AP Calculus and AP Chemistry; I would sometimes spend around five or six hours a night doing homework and studying. This, in turn, prepared me for the time and study skills needed for my freshmen year of college.
My extra-curricular activities in high school ranged from being a part of Student Council and President of Key Club to playing volleyball, coaching a basketball team, dancing at a local studio, and participating in musicals sponsored by my county. For any college, it is important to be a well-rounded student by demonstrating leadership skills, ability to work with a team, and willingness to volunteer in your community.
What is it like to be a woman in a male dominated career path?
Virginia Tech had a Living and Learning program for freshmen, women engineers. This program taught me valuable skills and gave me the opportunity to meet amazing women that I still study with and am friends with today. The program also guaranteed that I would never be the only female in any of my engineering courses my freshmen year. Having that support system while I was fist beginning played a huge part in my success as an engineer, because being the only female in a course can add to the intimidation of the course material itself.
Although, I am further into my major and have spent a few months in the workplace, I have yet to experience the hardships that females have to endure during their career. I believe my parents have raised strong, independent women and there are support systems, such as the Society of Women Engineers, that will help me to overcome any challenges or discrimination that may be faced.
What challenges have you encountered thus far?
A coworker recently told me that females have to either choose between a family and success in their career. I have always pictured myself having a family one day so the first thing I did when I was told my goals were close to unattainable was research female CEOs with children. I found that these women achieved the highest position in a company that you can reach while having a family, but they didn’t do it alone; they had a support system behind them the whole way.
I understand that my dreams are not going to be an easy road and I am unsure of what the future holds, but I am determined to do what it takes to reach my goals.
What advice would you give to young girls who may be interested in math and science?
Never lose confidence if you are struggling in math and science classes. School has never been easy for me; I have always had to put in a little extra effort in order to receive that grades I have earned. That extra effort in school is what is going to help separate you from the boys when you grow older- perseverance to achieve what you want to achieve.
Never be afraid to ask for help if you don’t understand something right away or ask for a mentor (such as a teacher or family friend) to meet with once a week to talk about each other’s weeks (what you struggled with and how you can or did overcome it).
My last piece of advice is to join the math and science clubs, even though it might sound boring at first, the skills and extra practice that these clubs can give you will help make you a stronger student in the future.
What advice would you give to high school girls who plan on majoring in engineering in college?
I highly suggest challenging yourself by taking AP and Honors math and science courses if you know you want to major in engineering.
It is equally important to develop your interest outside of the classroom. You can do this by finding an engineer that you could talk to about their job, or one you could shadow for a week during summer vacation. Another way would be to create an organization at school that brings working women in to speak about their job and experiences. Joining clubs, such as robotics or chemistry club will give hands-on experience in your field of interest and can help when applying to colleges.
Why did you choose chemical engineering? What about it excites you?
When I was a freshman in high school, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent treatment and is a now a six-year survivor. It wasn’t until after I found out about her cancer, that I realized how many people in my own life are diagnosed, going through treatment, or have passed away from this horrible disease. So, as I was looking at colleges and the jobs that are available with an engineering degree, I realized that all different types of engineers were developing cancer research and treatments.
I decided to go with chemical engineering, as opposed to mechanical or biological systems, because I enjoyed the field of chemistry and working with the research and development side of the medical field.
I have been working with Toyota since the end of January 2013 and will be with them until December 2013, where I will then return to Virginia Tech and finish the last year and a half of my degree. After working in a manufacturing plant, I see that the job opportunities open for a chemical engineer, or any type of engineer, are endless. This is the most exciting part of engineering for me, anything that you can dream of building, designing, or creating is never too out of scope for an engineer.