“Why I almost quit STEM” — A Reflection on SWE’s 2018 Congressional Outreach Days
To advocate for the full inclusion of women in the engineering workforce, SWE held its 2018 Congressional Outreach Days in DC this past March. This story is part of a series of post-event reflections shared by participants.
By Jessica Deters, SWE Member
My name is Jessica Deters, and when I was in my first-year at Colorado School of Mines, I very nearly quit STEM. I was struggling next to my peers and felt like they were leaps and bounds ahead of me. I went into office hours with my physics professor Dr. Kristine Callan, who was one of only two female physics professors in the department at the time, for help with my physics homework. Not only did she help me with the homework, but she took it as an opportunity to ask me how I was doing at Mines. I told her that I was honestly thinking of leaving. I didn’t think I was smart enough to make it in engineering. She told me that was ridiculous. Of course, I was smart enough and more, it wasn’t about being smart but working hard.
This interaction kept me from leaving. Without strong role models and mentors like Dr. Callan, and without programs that support women in STEM like SWE, I never would have graduated last May with my B.S. in Applied Math & Statistics. Now, I’m a Ph.D. student in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech researching this exact issue.
Diversity Fuels Innovation in STEM
I had the honor of participating in SWE’s Congressional Outreach Days on March 14-15, 2018. I had never visited my elected representatives before and did not know what to expect or how to approach the meetings going into the week. Thankfully, SWE hosted a training the day before our scheduled visits, so we had the chance to learn about recent research about women in STEM as well as current policy and legislation that we would be advocating for.
We also learned how to leave a lasting impact on the congressional representatives and staff we met with. The secret? We needed to tell our personal story of why diversity in engineering matters and how it has made a difference in our life. Thinking about it, this makes sense – we need a memorable lead in order to make a lasting impact. The story above is my story that I shared throughout my outreach visits. My story is about the power role models who look like you and organizations that support women and underrepresented minorities have in helping students succeed in STEM.
Starting with a personal story was the best tip I received in approaching meetings with congressional officials and staff. In my meetings, I repeatedly found that my personal story was the perfect springboard to talking about the specific legislation and policies we wanted our officials to support.
As a first-time participant, this practical tip allowed me to realize that I could be a successful advocate for diversity in STEM. I walked away with several other valuable tips and takeaways, which I will summarize below.
Congressional Outreach Tips
- Tell your story – Why is this issue personal to you? Begin the conversation with a personal story that will be memorable. Make your first sentence tug at the heartstrings. Appeal to emotion, leave the logic for later.
- Don’t let them distract you – Don’t get caught up in talking about the newest grocery store or your favorite trails. Remember why you’re there and get down to business!
- It never hurts to ask – Ask for what you want. I learned this from SWE Treasurer Heather Doty, whom I attended the Colorado meetings with. Heather taught me to always ask for pictures with the Congressman or Senator. We asked for a photo with Heather’s representative, Jared Polis. We had to wait about 10 minutes after our meeting to grab the shot, but we got it! Not only that, but we managed to be on an elevator with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on our way to grab lunch after the meeting. We were only on the elevator with her for one floor, but it made me realize the power of visiting Washington, DC. Not only were our elected officials there, but cabinet secretaries that I only ever hear of on the news were roaming the same elevators as us. Talk about a small world.
- Demystifying Congress – I was almost intimidated by the idea of Representatives and Senators going into this visit. I grew up reading about Congress in books and hearing about them on the news, but I had never had personal contact with my Representative or Senators before this visit. I was shocked by how receptive the staff we met with were to our visit and our message. Moreover, I was shocked by how easy it was to talk with them. Now, I may have lucked out as every office I met with was already a strong supporter of diversity in STEM. Even so, they asked for our personal experiences, they asked targeted questions about diversity in STEM, and they even asked for our policy suggestions. In the meetings, with the questions asked to us, I truly felt I had a say in shaping the direction our country goes in with regards to diversity in STEM.
- Mentors and Role Models MATTER – My personal story that I shared during my meetings was about the importance of strong mentors and role models who look like you in encouraging more women and underrepresented minorities to go into STEM. After I told my story, I was able to watch SWE Treasurer Heather Doty, a fellow Coloradan, share SWE’s talking points and specific policy requests with the staffer. This was my first time attending SWE Congressional Outreach Days, and I learned so much by watching how Heather interacted with the staff. As I shared my story about mentors and role models, I had a new mentor and role model beside me. What a powerful parallelism. I am so thankful to have been paired with Heather and to have learned from her outreach strategy.
Thank you to SWE for hosting this event. I encourage anyone passionate about diversity and women in STEM to attend next year!