Long before I came to Michigan, I knew I was meant to be an engineer.

Julia Zarina

This belief may have come as much from my love of science and math as it did from the hope that I would find a community of people I belonged with: people who skipped middle school dances to write letters to NASA about the technical similarities between the Mars Rover and R2-D2. People who can’t play Angry Birds for extended periods of time because they get angry when the trajectories of the catapulted birds don’t obey the laws of classical mechanics. People who love the challenge of creating, of making their own mark on the world and learning to better understand it from a perspective they identify with.

Somewhere towards the end of freshman year that all changed. In high school I had been a straight-A student, but in college I struggled to keep up, lost in a sea of people who all seemed to tirelessly and deftly juggle classes, clubs and internships. I was inspired, but I was also vastly unprepared for the competitiveness, the workload and most of all, the culture. I came from a high school where diversity meant far more than a brochure cover, and the cost of an education was a concern as real and as present as getting admitted to a university in the first place. Here, I felt acutely like an impostor — as though the admissions department had made some grave administrative error and I was wasting everyone’s time by believing I could compete, let alone succeed.

For me, the counter-evidence to this came not from an A on an exam or a compliment from a respected professor. It came from my own self-affirmation: the first time I recognized that my degree was more than a piece of paper or a measure of my worth calculated to two decimal points. It was the moment I looked in the mirror and saw myself for who I was — my own culture, gender and experiences — AND as an engineer, and felt that these two identities coexisted agreeably, that being one did not make me less of the other. I wanted to make my education and my title totally my own — I didn’t want or need it handed to me, prepackaged in someone else’s experiences and expectations.

On a more literal note, this revelation also came when someone broke into our kitchen at the beginning of my sophomore year.

In response to this, my landlord began installing various locking mechanisms on the doors in our house. After arriving at the property one night to find his 1998 gold Ford minivan parked with the accuracy of a homing beacon in the precise geographical center of our front yard, I entered my home to discover that I was the proud owner of a padlock.

Well, not a padlock per se, but a metal hinge device like one might find on a trunk that, when properly installed and paired with an actual padlock, provides a fairly effective means of securing valuables. Unfortunately, said mechanism was not properly installed, a statement that was informed primarily by my engineering training, but additionally by the casual observation that he had bolted the metal hinge to the center of my door, ensuring that either one of two options were available to me:

1) Securely padlock the hinge to itself, allowing for uninhibited door opening/closing abilities while having a nice padlock-themed door decoration, or

2) Construct an elaborate system of bungee cords and chains that would span the width of the door frame and provide me with that “sociopath lair” image that’s so useful for keeping undesirables out of your room.

Concerned about these security measures being sufficiently effective, I designed and constructed a Rube-Goldberg intruder alarm straight from the deleted scenes of Home Alone, complete with pulleys and a hammer that would strike a cookie sheet, alerting me to the presence of an unwelcome intruder. What exactly I would do (beyond immediately fear-vomiting) at that strike of the cookie sheet was unclear to me, but it was unimportant at the time. I was triumphant. I had successfully engineered a solution to a real-world problem. I had used my major, and though it was in a way that was absurd, minor and inconsequential, it was also in a way that was wholly my own.

From the mundane to the revolutionary, real world experience is critical. In a purely practical sense, it is a foundation required by employers in an increasingly interactive and interdisciplinary global economy. In a more idealistic sense, learning to create — to be unique and meaningful in the world — is the ultimate objective of an education, a goal which often gets abstracted in the pressure to get a higher test score, a higher GPA and a better-paying job.

Even at one of the top-ranked engineering schools in the country, the standards set by and for our education system often encourage narrowly defined guidelines for success. Beyond that, “real world” experience as implemented by many engineering programs is limited in the scope of what it defines the real world to be.

When I wait for the bus inside North Campus buildings, I scan the names on the walls of honored engineers and find no women and few people of color. When I read the enrollment statistics, the numbers reflect only a marginally better representation. There is little to indicate that engineering has embraced and accepted the “real world” beyond the pictures on the first pages of a recruiting brochure.

Even in the face of increasing objections, the College of Engineering still has no Race and Ethnicity or language requirements for its students, as these subjects are not seen to be essential to an engineering career. This is simply no longer true. In a world that is infinitely connected and multidisciplinary, it is impossible to ignore elements that influence our perspectives and experiences — elements such as gender, culture, race and background — and it is detrimental and discrediting to try to.

Engineering is a profession dedicated to technical and scientific excellence, and introducing academic requirements that encourage students to think in social contexts will elevate, not detract from these values. We need to commit to education beyond equations and computer code, not only to inspire and include capable students who don’t fit the traditional mold, but to set and live up to a higher standard of real-world-driven, socially responsible engineering.

Julia Zarina can be reached at jumilton@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.