Op-Ed: Redefining "Michigan Engineer"

Tuesday, April 11, 2017 - 1:45pm

For the past three and a half years, I’ve fought fiercely against being titled a “Michigan Engineer.” I rejected this title because to me it seemed like the Michigan Engineer represented so many of my negative experiences amid engineering culture: having to prove to my male teammates that I’m just as capable as them, students and faculty alike not understanding how our decisions as engineers affect real people’s lives, and fighting against the administration to accept my work in disability design and design research.

I remember so vividly the day sophomore year that I walked into the machine shop for the first time to complete a training project. I was sweating and my hands were shaky. I tracked down one of the guys in flannel shirts who looked like he might be in charge and told him why I was there. I told him I had never been in a machine shop before and had absolutely no experience with making things. He walked me over to a big scary lathe and told me the project was easy — don’t worry. I asked him how I should start. He shot his wide eyes at me and said: “Didn’t you watch the instructional videos? You really should come here prepared.” Then he walked away.

What that man didn’t know was I had actually watched every single video they gave us about three times each. I memorized everything, but it’s different when you’re standing in front of a giant, scary machine for the first time. I didn’t know what to do. I apparently wasn’t allowed to ask for help. But I couldn’t just stand there, look at all the knobs and levers, and hope to magically become enlightened either. So I left. I returned my tools, got back my Mcard and walked out the door.

I thought it was my fault, that I wasn’t good enough to be an engineer. I had never felt so stupid in my whole life. I sat on a bench outside the EECS building and called my dad right then, crying progressively harder the further I got into recounting my story.

This memory and the way I felt that day will forever be burned into my mind. Unfortunately, it’s not the only negative experience I had in engineering, and I’m not the only person to have felt that they weren’t good enough to be an engineer. To me at that time, identifying as a Michigan Engineer meant being close-minded, condescending, exclusionary of women and minorities, unwilling to ask for or give help, and too proud to admit mistakes.

So why did I stay in this program? It’s a question almost everyone asks me and one that I’ve asked myself every day for the past three years. I realized recently that it’s because of those whose energy and action contradict the negative, but often accurate, stereotype of a Michigan Engineer. Despite my experience in the machine shop, my design team that semester was incredibly supportive, and we were able to bring out one another’s strengths in ways I never imagined.

That same year, I began a disability design company with Sidney Krandall, a University alum in the School of Art & Design class of 2016, and we were able to rely on individual faculty to sit down with us and give feedback on cardboard-and-duct-tape prototypes. I discovered people whose offices I could stop by and pose big questions to about carving my own path through the College of Engineering. Shanna Daly, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, became one of my closest mentors in this way. She helped me discover the exponential growth that occurs when design research aligns with design practice, and introduced me to a world of opportunities, including a trip to Copenhagen to present our research.

Amy Hortop, a coordinator of mechanical engineering capstone projects, became my partner in creating an Interdisciplinary Design Conference. This introduced me to an entire group of engineers, architects and designers who care just as much as I do about doing impactful work. And finally, my capstone design project team — Val Coldren, Ryan Payerle and Sheevam Naik — has been a source of unending creative energy as we navigate our way through an intense case study in disability design.

A couple of months ago, I realized I’m graduating this spring with a degree from the University of Michigan College of Engineering. So by definition, I am a Michigan Engineer. What does that mean?

I am a designer. I’m passionate about designing with and learning from people who have disabilities. I’m insistent that every single person has the opportunity to create a positive impact in the world, and I try to open people’s eyes to that opportunity. I care about being reflective and constantly question whether or not I’m a good person.

Some days, when the answer is no, it’s up to me to figure out why and put the right work in. After seeing so much negativity in the world this year, I decided to ensure every action I take is one that positively impacts society. Choosing to live my life this way has given me both direction and wind in the sails of my boat of life.

So what do you offer? What is a Michigan Engineer to you? I think now is our opportunity to define that the Michigan Engineer doesn’t just take one form, that we require it to be a fluid term. I’ve experienced a College of Engineering that is diverse in thought and passion. Where each student brings unique strengths and individuality to the table. Writing “University of Michigan” on a résumé no longer implies a certain personality or skillset.

Each one of us has carved our own paths through this university and every day my fellow students define what it means to be a Michigan Engineer. The weight is on our shoulders to create our own definition and to ensure that our legacy is one we can be proud of. Our shared background as Michigan Engineers is the platform from which we take our big jump with eyes wide open into creating the world in which we want to live.

Laura Murphy is a senior in the College of Engineering.