It takes a village to awaken an engineer

Jamie Archambeau | 25 Feb 2016 | Comments

Like so many engineers I know, I’ve always loved math, building with Legos, and trying to solve problems. When I was young, I would have given an arm and a leg for a calculator.

I asked my grandma to buy me one, and her response was, “I’ll buy you a calculator when you know your multiplication tables.” That was just the motivation I needed. I studied my multiplication tables until I was ready for my grandma’s math test. I got every question right and was so happy—thinking I was finally going to get my calculator! However, the response I got was NOT what I had expected. “Now that you know your multiplication tables,” she said, “you don’t need a calculator.” My grandma taught me to work for what I wanted and not try to take shortcuts.

I took this work ethic, applied it to my schoolwork, and excelled. However, growing up in a small town (my graduating high school class was only 42 students), I wasn’t aware of all of the career options available to me. Because of my interest in math and science, my guidance counselor recommended I become a teacher. I thought it sounded like a good career for me. Then just prior to graduation, my aunt, who happened to be a civil engineer, asked me what I was going to study in college and I told her what my guidance counselor suggested. She asked if I’d ever considered engineering. But up until that point, I had honestly never even heard of engineering as a career. She explained what engineers did—and at that moment, I knew I had found my perfect fit.

To this day, I still receive advice from my aunt. She’s still in the industry and we share stories, experiences, and the challenges of balancing a career and raising a family. She’s had an amazing career, raised two young women (one of which is currently studying biomedical engineering), and continues to be someone I aspire to be.

I often think about what would have happened if she hadn’t taken the time to reach out, encourage me, and broaden my horizons. I may not have ever been exposed to this career path. How many kids never pursue a career in engineering because no one takes the time to explain it to them?

Currently, I’m both an engineer and a teacher. I’ve benefited from so many wonderful role models and mentors and I know first-hand the importance of giving back. Through tutoring and mentoring young women, I’ve heard them say, “I’m not good at math” or “I don’t think I’m smart enough.” I think it’s really important for these young women to know that they are capable of anything they set their minds to—this is not the time to limit options!

It’s rewarding to work for a company that puts a strong emphasis on mentoring and understands the importance of encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) with students. It’s so important for those of us in STEM careers to give back to our communities, fellow employees, and children—share our experiences because you never know how you might change someone’s life.

Over a year ago we launched a mentoring program that paired over 30 staff across disciplines to provide new perspectives. We even have “reverse” mentoring taking place, where our millennials teach our senior leadership staff about new technology, social media, and the cool phrases that are being used these days. The young have many things they can teach the experienced. Our Graduate Development Program has been another extremely successful program, attracting many gifted engineers to our firm. Our graduates rotate through various engineering practices, gaining exposure to the variety of paths they have to choose from. The phrase “it takes a village” describes these programs well. Our staff learns so much from each other, resulting in well-rounded employees that find a home within their office and their tribe within the larger organization.

We also encourage all of our staff, especially women, to join the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS). This organization empowers women, through a supportive community of professionals, and provides many opportunities to be involved in the organization. One of the first pieces of advice I received early in my career was to join a WTS committee. I took this advice and have met so many people in the industry and have been exposed to so many amazing women that I’ve looked to as role models—all of whom have helped shape my career.

To all the young women (and men) out there, I’d strongly encourage you to look at careers in STEM. These are careers in which you can personally help shape the future. As my aunt explained to me, “engineers are people that solve problems.” My advice to you is don’t discount your abilities. Options within engineering are nearly endless and you could be the one that figures out how to create more resilient infrastructure, how to implement self-driving vehicles, or how to provide safe drinking water.

Whatever career path you choose, I encourage you to find (or make) your “village” and get involved. Your industry and community will be richer because of it. Find a mentor, be a mentor, become active in professional organizations and don’t be shy about sharing your story.