Shannon Herrity is a Mechanical Engineer: Find out how she got there, the type of projects she’s working on, and how you can #BeThatEngineer!
Both of my parents are engineers, so I was heavily encouraged in math and science from a young age. My father really pushed both of my brothers and me towards engineering in high school. To be honest, it didn’t really feel like a choice, more like destiny. That may sound bad, but engineering opened up so many opportunities for my parents, and they only wanted the same and more for us.
I chose Mechanical Engineering because I like puzzles, and physics, and working on cars with my dad. It also seemed to be the most versatile. I can go anywhere and do any job.
Before graduating from high school, there were few people that I could relate to. Even my counselors and teachers discouraged me, saying engineering would be really hard. These experiences continued into my freshman year at Virginia Tech. It seemed like I was the only girl in engineering. These experiences only made me more determined to succeed.
My sophomore year I joined a sorority for female engineers, Alpha Omega Epsilon, and then all of my friends were engineers. I had girls to sit with in each of my classes. I had resources to ask questions about how to dress for interviews and how to write a resume. Before I joined AOE, I seriously considered changing majors, or not pursuing a career in engineering post-graduation. Joining my sorority really got me through to graduation. Any organization, club, or friend group to go through school with, encouraging and strengthening each other, is essential to having a good college experience.
I graduated from Virginia Tech last May, with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, and a minor in Green Engineering. After co-oping in a paper mill with MeadWestvaco (now Westrock) for 4 months my junior year (pushing my projected graduation back a year), I accepted a job with them full time. They placed me in a career development rotation program where I rotate locations and positions within the company every 8 months. I currently live and work in Knoxville, TN as a project engineer in a folding carton plant. In early March, I will move to Tacoma, WA to work in a paper mill.
Currently, my boss has me acting as an interim department manager while they hire the next one. It’s mostly so I can get the learning experience, but I have really enjoyed it. I get up early, and come in to participate in a safety meeting, and shift change-over. The department scheduler and I do a walk-around, to see if there are any issues on the floor, and go over the day’s schedule. There’s also a morning production meeting with all of the other department managers. I’m just a stand in, but I really enjoy interacting with the people in my department and learning what it takes to be a manager.
My favorite part about my job is the people that I work with. Within the first month or so of my starting here, I was invited to a retirement dinner for one of the assistants on the floor. He said something at this dinner, along the lines of “it’s easy to get caught up in the problems of every day, but working with these people, all day every day, they become more than just co-workers, they become what is important to you.” And I will try to always remember that moving forward. The people I work with here like to keep things fun, and give each other a hard time. But they also really care about each other, and I am glad to be a part of it.
I have been rather lucky in my experiences thus far. Manufacturing is generally considered more “rough and tumble” than a lot of other engineering fields. I get to work with a lot of different people, but I’ve had very few challenges relating to my gender while working, other than some minor teasing. I just try my best every day and prove that I can hold my own, just like every one of my fellow co-workers. In my experience, they can see this, and respect me for it, regardless of my gender. I take it in stride and never let it inhibit me from doing my job. I feel like there is a lot of focus on the disadvantages of being a woman in this field, but I try to focus on the good things. For example, in a job fair, who is more likely to get remembered at the end of the day?
My biggest lesson and advice moving forward is to be kind and listen to those around you, no matter where they come from. A lesson can come from anywhere, and you catch more flies with honey than salt. Talk to people, about anything. They will be more willing to help you succeed if they like you, and feel like you listen and care. People just want to feel heard. Also, never be afraid to ask questions. I used to be terrified of seeming dumb when I asked questions. Then, in my co-op, I was working in an environment where anything could kill me if I didn’t know how to behave around it. So the flood gates opened and I haven’t stopped asking questions since. It’s especially important when we are this young and have the excuse of not knowing. People expect us to ask questions now, and expect us to know later.