Kate Nolan has been a SWE member since 2009 and life member since 2015, serving in a wide variety of leadership roles, including collegiate & professional section leadership, conference planning, society-level committees, and special projects. She most recently served as FY18 Outreach Committee Chair and is currently part of the planning team for Invent It. Build It. and the Local Host Committee for WELocal St. Louis.
On paper, SWE is a professional organization made up of more than 40,000 women engineers at all stages of their lives. For me, SWE is so much more. SWE is a network that has impacted me from the moment I became a member.
During the summer before my senior year, I attended an engineering camp at the University of Missouri. One of my counselors was a rising sophomore at the time, and a member of SWE. I heard never heard of SWE before, but knew that I would be among the minority in my engineering classes. I thought to myself, “This seems like an organization that I should be part of.”
One year later, I became a SWE member. In a room of 100 people at the first meeting, I knew just one other freshman from my introductory chemical engineering class. I was nervous to be in a room full of strangers, and wasn’t sure how I would fit in. The juniors and seniors seemed so accomplished – leaders in SWE and our College of Engineering, fresh off internships with large companies, and taking classes that I didn’t understand. However, our section president made me feel right at home, even though we had never met before. She made an effort to encourage freshmen to volunteer for events, attend meetings, and get involved in the section. At the end of that school year, she and the other outgoing seniors took a chance on me, and appointed me to serve as the section’s webmaster for FY11 – something I had never dreamed of.
My SWE involvement grew dramatically over the next several years. In the fall of 2012, I was a few months into my term as a collegiate section president, involved in every meeting, event, and initiative my section put on. I was worried about where my SWE journey would lead after college. This organization meant the world to me, but I really didn’t know what came next. And then, another door opened. I had volunteered to take part in SWE Magazine’s Coffee Table Conversations series, and sat down with a highly involved recent graduate at WE12, who had navigated a similar path just a few years prior. She told me that my SWE involvement didn’t have to end when I finished college. I could pursue region leadership, professional section involvement, or what really piqued my interest – being part of SWE committees and focusing on the areas that I was most passionate about. Had I not met her, my SWE involvement may have ended when I finished college.
As an outgoing collegiate leader, I had developed a passion for helping sections thrive. My next step was to reach out to someone with a wealth of SWE experience – my then-region governor. She connected me with the Collegiate Leadership Coaching Committee (now LCC), which gave me the opportunity to connect with collegiate sections in my area, help them learn more about SWE, and grow as leaders. Through my involvement on that committee, I also made some amazing friends in SWE.
Through SWE, I have also learned when to say “no”. In FY14, as a recent graduate, I had joined 3 SWE committees (collegiate leadership coaching, awards, and outreach); took on a position in my professional section; joined the board of a new employee organization; and was on a recent alumni board at my university. By mid-winter, I was burned out, overcommitted, and had to scale back. It takes an accountability partner to stay committed. Though I still struggle with saying “no”, I am fortunate to have an accountability partner at work, who is also highly involved in SWE. We often instant-message each other about the opportunities we turned down, and how it is completely okay to say no.
As a collegiate freshman, I didn’t believe that I would lead my collegiate section. As a recent graduate, I never believed that I would chair a society-level committee. As FY16 progressed, I decided that I would apply for the Outreach Committee chair-elect position the following year, chairing in FY19. Several trusted colleagues in the SWE outreach community felt that I could handle the challenge sooner than I believed, and encouraged me to apply that spring – a year earlier than I had planned. When I received the position, I was delighted. This was a dream come true! A few months later, I started worrying about the reality of hard work and leading a large committee. It ended up being an incredible adventure and one of the most rewarding leadership roles that I’ve ever held.
One of the most incredible things about SWE is the range of people represented – SWENexters, who are just beginning to explore the possibility of engineering; collegiate students, who have chosen to pursue engineering; professional working engineers in a myriad of fields industries; and retired engineers, who have the wisdom of rich careers to draw upon. The rich network of SWE is one of SWE’s most amazing strengths, and inspired me (and many others) to commit to SWE for life. I would not be where I am today in SWE or my career without the encouragement of friends and mentors in the nine years since I became a SWE member. I am currently taking a “break” by abstaining from full-year leadership roles in FY19, but I know that someone in SWE – whether a friend, a trusted mentor, or someone I’ve yet to meet – will help me find what is next. You never know where a new SWE connection will lead.