Started off as an Engineering Major…

I recently read the CNN article, “Why would-be engineers end up as English majors” and it hit home for me. The article discusses the drop out problem American universities are facing with science, math and engineering majors.

“Undergraduates across the country are choosing to leave science, technology, engineering and math programs before they graduate with those degrees. Many students in those STEM fields struggle to complete their degrees in four years, or drop out, according to a 2010 University of California, Los Angeles, study.

Thirty-six percent of white, 21% of black and 22% of Latino undergraduate students in STEM fields finished their bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields within five years of initial enrollment.

Nearly 22% dropped out after five years.”

I can personally relate to this problem as I started off in the Engineering Program at the University of Texas at Austin. Math was always my strong point and when my parents put me in the PreFreshman Engineering Program starting in grade school, I had this dream of being an engineer. To be accepted into the Engineering School at UT was a huge accomplishment for me because it was ranked as the top 10 engineering schools in the nation.

I definitely stuck out a like a sore thumb, being the only female in some of my labs and being Hispanic. I studied with mostly Indian and Asian males. One of the biggest challenges for me was having to work and study. I had two jobs, working at the REC center and at the Engineering school, raising money from Alumni for scholarships. It was definitely tough, as many of my schoolmates did not have to work.

I remember struggling in Physics class and I went to talk to my professor during his office hours. He asked me if I had a job and I said “yes.” He said, “well you better quit so you can have more time studying.”

When I received a D on an exam in Calculus I, I went to my professor to discuss options for me to improve. He actually told me that I probably wouldn’t pass the class and to consider just retaking it next semester. I got myself a tutor and ended up passing the class.

I never told my parents this but I had to take Calculus II twice. My Russian professor based the entire class on only 2 exams and I was so focused on my other classes that I felt I had Calculus in my back pocket. Well, I was wrong. When I went to speak to my professor, he did not budge.

It was challenge after challenge but I kept pushing. During my second year, I started having second thoughts about being an engineer. While working at the UT Engineering School, I spoke to many alumni that had lost their jobs at Enron or were not practicing engineering anymore. I remember speaking to one graduate that owned an ice cream shop.  “What was I doing here?,” I thought.

After my Thermodynamics class, I decided I wanted out. I wanted to be a Business major. When I went to speak to the counselor at the UT Business School, the #1 business school in the nation, I was informed that the accepting GPA was a 3.5 but the average GPA of students being accepted was a 3.9 (I had a 3.1). It didn’t matter that I was already a UT student in one of the most competitive programs. That meant that a community college student taking only their basics that had a higher GPA than me had a better chance of getting in. It didn’t make sense to me. The recommendation was for me to switch to Liberal Arts and trying getting my MBA from UT. What was I going to do with a Liberal Arts degree?

I made one of the toughest decisions in my career. I left UT and transferred to the UTSA Business Program where I was accepted. I had to transfer all my classes and even had to write petitions for some of them even though it was all within the UT system. Some of math and science classes didn’t count towards my degree.  I went on to study in Spain one semester and graduated with Bachelors in International Business.  I started my MBA but haven’t finished as my career became my first priority.

Do I have regrets? No. I am happy on where I am at and am doing things I never imagined myself doing.

However, if I could have done things differently, this is what I would have done:

  • Spent the day with engineers on the job to really understand what a typical day was like
  • Take college courses at a community college starting as a senior in HS to get credits sooner
  • Saved money for college so I didn’t have to work as much
  • Joined female engineering groups to get the support and encouragement I needed

Had I had done these things, things might have turned out differently. I know for certain I want to encourage our youth to pursue degrees in Science, Math, and Engineering. Our country is hurting for graduates with these degrees and we need to do what we can to help students see themselves pursuing a career in these fields.

I do hope to get my Masters in Mathematics and teach one day. Algebra and geometry? Yes, please!

6 thoughts on “Started off as an Engineering Major…

  1. I like this. I find this topic very interesting because I kind of did the opposite. I was always good at math and used to love it but I hated English and writing classes. However, I took an awesome creative writing class my senior year in high school and loved it. I was also fascinated by Psychology from about the time I was in middle school. So I went into college planning to triple major in English, Spanish, and Psychology with the goal of being a writer and/or doing literary analysis. However, about three years into college reality (the fact that I had $17,000 worth of loans) started to sink in. At that time too, my mom bought the first modern computer our family ever owned which had Windows 95 on it. I thought it was awesome and would stay awake until 2 and 3am playing with it trying to figure out all the different pieces and how it worked. So I kept Psychology since I was almost done with those courses but picked up Computer Science at St. Mary’s. I ended up graduating in 5 years. Then I ended up going to graduate school with the intent of getting a Master’s in Software Engineering. But the courses for software were not that difficult for me by this time as I already had some experience under my belt. But I took a computer architecture course and got a low B in it. I decided after that class to switch my Masters to Electrical Engineering with a concentration in Computer Engineering because it was more challenging and I figured if I could do that then I could do anything. So that’s what I did.

    But one thing I think helped me is that I went to St. Mary’s University. They have won awards for having the highest number of Hispanics who go on to medical school and things of that nature. So the environment there is one in which they want to help you succeed in things that challenge you rather than discourage you. The professors I had there, in particular in the engineering department, were foundational in helping me succeed and gain the confidence I needed to obtain my Masters. So I would add that students looking to pursue an engineering degree could take into consideration what kind of support and attitude the engineering professors have in terms of collaboration and support.

    With all this, being a female, Hispanic engineer is lonely. I struggle now to even want to encourage young girls to go into this field unless they feel a calling to the sciences. I’m not happy with that outlook but there are a lot of emotional and mental sacrifices I had to make to be who I am in this field and still leave a pathway open to be social and communicate/relate to my family and friends. But, I would gladly offer help to anyone who has questions or needs support when they are pursing this field. I just feel like I’m not convinced I can evangelize yet because it’s tough and lonely.

  2. Wow, interesting, thanks for sharing your story. At UT, you’re very much a number and even when I would go speak with my professors during their office hours, I still never had that personal connection. My grades were ok but at times, I just didn’t know if it was worth it – I couldn’t foresee where an engineering degree could take me. Like I said, I have no regrets, however if I had a better support system, I probably would have pushed through.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Angela! I definitely agree with these points, for both men and women in high school and entering college, in any major:
    – Sped the day with professionals on the job to really understand what a typical day was like
    – Take college courses at a community college starting as a senior in HS to get credits sooner
    – Save money for college and don’t work as much in college (I actually think it’s better to graduate with *some* debt than work over 15 hours per week in college. I also think kids should get summer jobs while they’re in HS.)
    – Join female (or similar) engineering groups to get the support and encouragement needed

    I finished a degree in Computer Engineering without really knowing what exactly I wanted to do as a career. After spending several years programming, I knew I wanted something different and started studying project management. Then I saw a job req for a product manager that really fit my interests and strengths. Now, as a product manager, I find myself much more engaged at work than when I was programming. I wonder what life would be like now if I had realized this sooner… not that my time was wasted, but I did spend many years working at less than full potential. And I continue to wonder – am I working and living at full potential now? Am I working on the right projects, at the right place, with the right mindset to achieve greatness?

  4. Great advice Theresa. I think on the job shadowing and joining a support group are key. I think if you surround yourself around those that share the same passion and interests, you are likely to stick with it. To confirm what you want to do however, I think it is incredibly important to shadow a professional. Especially with the way technology is changing the function of jobs today, college curriculum isn’t keeping up with the pace and to really know what the real world looks like, you have to be in it.

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