Overcoming Challenges as a Woman in a Mechanical Engineering Major

This blog article is based on the College Talks & More podcast brought to you by Mybookcart.com. Co-hosts Hanna and Cari interviewed Sara, who offers advice to women on how to not let your fear of being in a male-dominated major control you, and that women should do it all while in college. She started out the interview by giving a brief overview of herself:

Our guest Sara

My name is Sara. I’m going to school for mechanical engineering. I have a concentration in robotics with a minor in mathematics and I am going into my senior year.

What schools do you plan on applying to?

I won’t be going to a graduate school but I go to Southern New Hampshire University right now.

Are you a full time or part time student? 

I am a full time student.

What made you decide to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering with a concentration in robotics and a minor in mathematics?

I was originally going to school to be an English and teaching major. I decided that it wasn’t for me and it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I walked around the fair that my school was having with all the majors and I walked past the engineering table and I decided that I wanted to do engineering. My mom asked if I was sure and I said yes so that’s what I ended up doing. I chose robotics because we had to pick a concentration and out of all of them, that sounded like the most fun.

Do you take classes on or off campus?

I take classes on campus and I also live on campus.

When it comes to roommates, do you have any and did you pick them or were you assigned?

Living with roommates

Freshman year I picked my roommate through the Facebook group that they put together for the students and that didn’t work out so she ended up moving out. In the second semester of freshman year, I was assigned a roommate and that worked out well. I was terrified when I heard that I would be assigned a roommate so I tried to find her Facebook account and other social media to see what type of person she was. We ended up being a great match. We are still friends and we acted like sisters when we lived together. It was a lot of fun to have that type of friendship and make that friend so quickly. For my sophomore year, I was an RA so I lived in an apartment style where everyone had a single bedroom. I had three other roommates besides myself so I got to choose two roommates and then we had a random roommate move in.

A lot of people complain about the food at college. Do you eat on or off campus and do you have a meal plan?

I have the cheapest meal plan, which is approximately $900. When I started living in an apartment style, I started cooking for myself which is better. I love to cook so it worked out well for me. In my freshman year, I discovered that I have celiac disease and the school wasn’t accustomed to people with a gluten problem. That was a big struggle for me but they just recently updated the procedure so it’s better to eat in the dining hall. It gets boring because there’s not a lot of options. It’s not the best quality food but it’s not terrible.

If there was someone else at your school that had celiac disease, how would you tell them the food was?

I would tell them where I think they should eat. The Grill has great American food and they are accustomed well to people with gluten problems. We also have a Fiesta Zone but it can be trickier depending on who’s working there because you either end up with cross contamination or you don’t. For freshman year, I could really only eat at the salad bar and after a while of just eating salad, you loose interest in eating.

How has COVID-19 affected your studies?

Using coding software at home for online learning

I came home spring break and we didn’t go back, which was really stressful. I didn’t like that I couldn’t go back to school. I was working on a project with the SEE Science Center in Manchester, New Hampshire and I couldn’t build what we were working on because of being home. We have to do everything online but my school has been great with giving us the programs we need to complete our courses. They gave us access to SolidWorks, LabVIEW, MATLAB, and all different types of CAD software and coding software so we didn’t have to download or pay for them on our personal computers. 

I would say that majoring in mechanical engineering with a concentration in robotics and a minor in mathematics is not easy. What do you do when things get frustrating? 

It definitely isn’t easy and I do get frustrated often. Thankfully I have some really great friends that I can complain to and we end up talking for a few hours about how frustrating it is or sometimes they’ll help me. Truthfully, your peers are your best ally when it comes to your schoolwork because they are going to feel just as frustrated with it as you are. If you’re a shy person and don’t feel comfortable going to your professor, you can take a friend with you. Also, walking around is always a great option. Circling a building a few times will help release the stress or calling your family can help you to relax.

If you need help with your studies besides your peers or friends, where do you find it?

For my freshman and sophomore year, I went to the library because they have a tutoring center. They had walk-in hours and they also offered private tutoring. I opted for the private tutoring mostly because it was one-on-one and I could really get a grasp on what I wasn’t understanding. It really helped me, especially now that I see my friends don’t understand the basics because they didn’t want to go and get a tutor. They didn’t want to take that extra step and they just wanted to go to their professors. Professors are great but they don’t always have the time for the lower level courses. For my upper level courses that I’m in now, I’m always in my professor’s office hours and they’re really great with the upper level courses and explaining what exactly it is that you aren’t understanding. 

What is involved in completing a degree in mechanical engineering? Are there any special projects that you need to do?

Designing a plan for a Capstone project

For your senior year, you have to complete a Capstone project, which is a full year project. The first half is planning the project and working with your customers and professors to make sure everything is perfect. The second half of the year is spent actually building and working with problems as they come along. It takes a lot of drive and commitment to push through all of the years to your senior year. For me, my sophomore year was hard but for others, it’s their junior year that’s hard. For my school specifically, engineering is 129 credits and you have to add 30 additional general education credits and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA. I’ve seen a lot of people come into the program knowing that engineering was what they wanted to do and they dropped out because they didn’t want to put in the time and the effort. I spend a lot of time on my studies. I’m at my CETA building from 10 o’clock in the morning to midnight every night during the week, except for Saturdays and Sundays.

What is your plan after you complete your degree?

My plan is to work. I’m going into my senior year so I am working on finding a job right now. My goal is to graduate with a job.   

How are you paying for your college education?

I have an agreement with my parents that while I’m in school, they will pay and then after school, I’ll start paying for whatever’s left. Then we will work out the difference at some point. I also have a lot of scholarships and I was an RA for my sophomore year. Between my scholarships and being an RA, we only had to pay $5,000 for a year of school.

Do you have an academic advisor?

Meeting with an academic advisor

I do have an academic advisor and I love her. She is my best resource so if I have any questions, I will go to her. My school also has a student success counselor in the CETA building for CETA students. I go to her and my academic advisor all the time, sometimes just to talk. Everyone at my school is really friendly, supportive, and there for you if you need help.

You mentioned that you were an RA. Have you done any internships?

Yes, I have done internships. I’m currently an intern at a local company and I’ve been there since the summer of my freshman year. I highly recommend for anyone in the engineering field to keep applying for internships. Even if it says that you can’t get an internship because you don’t fit your educational requirements, still apply because you might get it even if it says it’s not for freshmen. I got an internship as a freshman and they’ve kept me on. My goal is to work for this company when I graduate. 

How hard is it being a woman in a male-dominated major? How many women are in your classes? Within your classes, do you see bias towards men?

It is difficult being in a male-dominated major. At orientation, I walked into a room of all men and one man told me that I was in the wrong room. I was said, “No I’m not, this is engineering,” and he said that women can’t be engineers. I was shocked and I didn’t know how to react to that. One of the men who was running the orientation said to the man, “If that’s what you think, then you should leave right now.” I have seen a lot more women come into the field. In my classes, there are two other girls and one of them graduated this year. During classes it can be pretty difficult because I had a project that I was working on with two other boys and we were really excited at the start and then when it came to the construction and design plans, my input wasn’t taken seriously. They didn’t want me doing certain things and they would tell me that they would do it. I don’t think they trusted me because I am a woman. That was actually validated because quite a few of my friends had heard them talking about me, which was not fun to hear about.

Did you report them or talk to your professor about how you were being treated during the project?

My friends actually reported them and then told me about it. My professor then talked to me and them about it. I had so much going on so at first I thought my friends were trying to help me out because they know how busy I am. It was a learning point for me because as a woman in this major, you have to be more assertive because the men will try and look down on you and treat you differently.

What other tips do you have for women looking to receive a degree in mechanical engineering?

Becoming a female engineer

Women need to just do it. If you think about it and you want to do it, just do it. I was afraid that I would have to drop out and people were going to talk about me behind my back. Don’t be afraid and don’t let fear control you. You shouldn’t be afraid to walk in a room full of men and just own it because there have been so many times where I’ve walked into the classroom and I’ve gotten weird looks because I’m a girl walking into a room full of men. Don’t be afraid of your other female companions in the classes and don’t make it a competition. I know that has happened with me a couple of times. I’ve walked into one of my math classes and there was one other girl in there and she wanted to make it a competition but I just wanted to be her friend.

I think a lot of women will find encouragement in what you’re saying. Do you feel it will be harder to find a job as a woman in this field?

No I don’t. It might be easier because they’re trying to boost the number of women in the STEM fields, which is good and bad. Fake feminism is never good but at the same time, I’d rather have it be skewed where they’ll pick you because you are a woman. Still, I’d rather get the job because of my credentials.

What support, if any, have you received from your college in regards to being in a male-dominated field?

My college is amazing at supporting women in the STEM fields. They’ve organized fundraisers to help the women that are still in high school that want to come to college. Also, they’ve had women from all different age ranges come and look at what we are doing. They’ve had women in STEM programs come and talk to high school students to tell them about being in the STEM field. We have a lot of female teachers that are really supportive and they help push the women along and change the bias in the boys if there is any to realizing that women can be engineers. 

How do you feel about going back to college with the COVID-19 pandemic?

Online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic

My school opted to not go back on campus and they’ve decided that we will do everything online. The tuition rate has been lowered, which is good but it’s very upsetting to me because it’s my senior year and I want to be on campus. I haven’t gotten a lot of information on how classes will be run or how I will be doing my Capstone project, which is stressful. On the other hand, I’m excited to see what new opportunities they’ll have and what new projects they will think of. I really hope we go back in the spring because I want to build my Capstone project and I want to walk across the stage for graduation.

Do you feel that you are missing out on part of your education with no hands-on learning?

Definitely. I think that it is a drawback to not be in a classroom and I find it is a lot harder to sit in front of a computer and listen to a lecture because there are so many distractions and there’s no professor standing there to make sure you are actively listening. 

Do you have any free time and if so what do you do?

I don’t really have free time during the week. I try to get all of my schoolwork done during the week so the weekends are free. I will try and go home during the weekends but not every weekend. If I don’t go home, I spend a lot of time with my friends and we’ll go for walks or go to the grocery store because that’s always a lot of fun. We just try to relax and have a good time. When I don’t hang out with my friends, I sleep because I’m usually really tired when I’m at school.

In addition to your busy college schedule, are you involved in any community organizations?

I was in a humans versus zombies club during my freshman year, which was a lot of fun. It’s basically a giant game of tag except when you are tagged, you turn into a zombie. As a sophomore, I was an RA but that was really stressful and it didn’t work for me because I’m very introverted and I needed to be extroverted. There were also a lot of problems on my floor and it was a lot of work. Last year, I wasn’t an RA because I wanted to focus on my studies. 

Are you in a relationship? If you are, do they go to your school? If they don’t go to your school, how is a long distance relationship working?

Communicating with a significant other while away at college

I have been in a relationship for a little over 4 years. He doesn’t go to my school but we make it work by talking on the phone every night while I’m in college. Freshman year was probably the hardest because it’s your first year away from home and you’re trying to figure out what’s okay within the relationship in terms of hanging out with people of the opposite gender. It becomes difficult because your friends want to go out but you’re thinking of your significant other. My best advice for that is to talk to them and make sure you know what they’re comfortable with and what you’re comfortable with. Also, they’re going to want to go out and keep themselves busy also so you need to communicate and face your problems head on. In my freshman year a lot of people were saying they didn’t know why I came to school with a boyfriend because it’s not going to work out. I stopped being friends with them because I didn’t need that negativity in my life. You’re going to be faced with a choice of whether you should stay in the relationship or do something else and be on your own. I love my boyfriend and I chose to stay with him.

Is your boyfriend supportive of your career goals?

My boyfriend actually told me that I was too smart to only go to school for education. He believed I could do so much more. When I told him I wanted to be an engineer, he said that was a good idea and was really supportive about it.

What is your favorite thing about college?

That’s a tough question because there are a lot of things I like about college. I like the freedom to find yourself and do the things that you love to do. I’ve really grown my love for cooking and baking while I’ve been at school and I’ve learned that I can do things that I didn’t think I was able to do before I came to college.

What have been some of your struggles with going to college?

The hardest part is being away from my family and my support system. I’m a big family oriented person and I’m always hanging out with my sister or my mom and dad. They understand me the best out of everyone. My boyfriend’s the same way. We’re always with my family or his family. The hardest part was leaving them and getting out of my comfort zone. 

What other college advice do you have for other students?

Do it all. Don’t be afraid. Go out and make friends. Have a lot of fun but make sure you always put your studies first. Your studies have to come first when you’re at school because I’ve seen too many kids put other things before their studies. They end up flunking out or dropping out of the program that they really wanted to be in because they couldn’t handle it. You’re paying a lot of money for school so you want to be successful. 

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