I remember it so vividly. I was a high school sophomore in the spring of 1981 when a speaker from a local college gave a presentation to our class of about 700 students in the school auditorium. One part of his message about career paths has always stuck with me. He explained that if we had an aptitude in math or science, women could receive a starting salary of $30,000 after earning a four-year degree from an engineering school. At the time, my mother was a single mom struggling to provide for our family financially. We were teetering on the verge of homelessness, so becoming an engineer seemed like a good solution to being poor!
I had no idea what was involved in engineering, though. Maybe I would ride on a train and wear a hat? And at that point, I had not demonstrated any aptitude in math or science...but I was definitely a woman. In my mind, I was halfway there! So, I hustled over to my guidance counselor and told her I had decided to become an engineer. I asked her which classes I should take so I could apply to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). She peered over her reading glasses at me and responded: "I would advise against this because you have no money, bad grades and you are not very smart." I thought her job was to help me. I was so surprised by that reaction, but I didn’t give up.
After consulting a different guidance counselor, I went to the school library, researched the entrance requirements for WPI, completed them and received a full scholarship and early decision admission. Even with my scholarship, sometimes I faced financial challenges throughout my education. There were times when it was even hard to find gas money so I could drive to class. During my last year of college, I had my son. I was probably the only student on campus who carried my books in one arm and a baby in the other. And I was definitely the only one who took notes AND nursed a baby during lectures. My son was just 11 weeks old when I passed my final competency exam. In 1987, as a new mom, I became the first person in my family to earn a four-year degree.
I believe in paying it forward. Through the years, I have mentored others, both men and women, young and old, on their journeys toward pursuing their goals, and I applaud others who do the same. I joined L3Harris as a mechanical engineer in December 2020, and I am constantly learning and expanding my technical skills. I enjoy participating in employee resource groups with like-minded colleagues who inspire and encourage each other.
In retrospect, I wish I remembered the name of that speaker at my high school so I could thank him for inspiring me. Because of that experience, I’ve enjoyed a 30+ year career which has allowed me to work on so many exciting and interesting projects – assisting in the redesign of Space Shuttle boosters, leading several commercial aviation failure investigations and producing dozens of military/aerospace innovations, to name a few. I also think about that guidance counselor who discouraged me. In a way, she helped me too – if she had been kind and nurturing, I might not have had the drive to become an engineer and prove her wrong. Things like this happen for a reason, and I am proud of where my career journey has taken me.