Many people leave Disney World dreaming of becoming a princess, but when I experienced Disney for the first time as a three-year-old, I left the parks with a different dream: to become an engineer. I was enamored by the rides and became obsessed with learning how everything—from the roller coasters to the teacups—fit together and worked.
While I knew I wanted to be an engineer, I didn’t know which type of engineer I wanted to be. Fortunately, my parents handled my interest in engineering in the same way they handled other extracurricular activities: by finding every opportunity for me to learn about and experience engineering. Over the next decade, I learned about engineering by interviewing current engineers, going to summer camps, and absorbing information online.
When I was 13, I read a paragraph-long description about industrial engineering and knew what I wanted to do with my life. Today, I’m a senior industrial engineering student at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made in my teens.
I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of my career in STEM, but there are a few key takeaways from my experience that can help others explore a STEM career:
Students: Surround yourself with a support system and keep a perspective on your goal
People have preconceived notions of who should major in STEM and what it means to be a good engineer. As a black woman, I knew there weren’t many people who looked like me pursuing a career in engineering. Thankfully, I was surrounded by other women in high school who were interested in STEM, but when I stepped into my first engineering class at the University of Illinois, I was alone.
It’s easy to doubt your abilities and place in the room when you’re concerned about fitting in with your classmates. That’s why it is so important to find a support system that encourages you to achieve your goals.
Keeping things in perspective is also imperative. I am not great at physics, but I am an engineering student. Throughout college, people have told me that I can’t be an engineer if I’m not good at physics. However, I knew my goal and that industrial engineers don’t use physics often. Keeping a perspective on my goal helped me persevere through physics without losing hope that I could achieve my goal.
Teachers: Expose students to STEM careers early and often
As a student, it’s difficult to work through assignments when the best explanation a teacher can give for why you should complete your work is that you will use the knowledge one day or that the state requires it. Knowing I wanted to be an industrial engineer helped me connect my classroom learning to my future career.
Many students don’t know what an engineer even is! I want to change that because I know what a difference it can make when you’re exposed to STEM careers early on.
To help other young students during my college career, I acted as a host for UL Xplorlabs, a next-generation, science-standards-aligned, module-based educational platform that encourages students to solve real-world science and engineering challenges through science. Xplorlabs includes free modules like Fire Forensics: Claims and Evidence and Portable Electrical Power that connect classroom learning with real-world engineering.
Giving students the opportunity to learn about real-life STEM careers—whether through career days or online modules like Xplorlabs—can inspire students in school today and potentially throughout their lives.
I am so grateful for the teachers, peers, and family that helped guide me on my STEM journey, and I hope to be that inspiration and example for other students by exposing them to STEM early on and encouraging them to achieve their goals. Maybe my journey won’t be considered so out-of-the-norm in the next few years.
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