I’d love to say I always knew I wanted to be an engineer, but that would be a lie. In spite of my dad being an electrical engineer, I had no idea what engineers actually did. I did however always enjoy science, math, and most of all space. I loved the planets of our solar system, most especially Mars. But every time I turned around someone knew more about the planets than me, someone knew more about space or science or did their math pages faster than me. There was an endless sea of people who were always better, smarter, faster, and getting higher scores than me. I couldn’t compete. I felt like a failure.
While math and science did come fairly naturally to me throughout school, once I started college I hit the mother of all roadblocks. Sophomore year my grades began to slip. I went from mostly A’s and a few B’s to just B’s and C’s. I was devastated and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t up to my usual par. I studied, I worked with classmates, I went to office hours, I understood the homework, but was still failing exams. And when I got my grades for my first semester of junior year and saw that my final grade was a D in Thermodynamics, I started to wonder if I was on the right track.
Was engineering really the right path for me?
How could I continue if I got a D as a final grade in a class? No one would ever hire me with a big fat D on my transcript. I felt that I just couldn’t be an engineer.
But like any good problem solver, I hunkered down and tried to find an explanation. I couldn’t be the only one to ever fail an exam. A lot of engineering was trial and error, learning how to apply the knowledge we’d been given in the right context. So I pulled out my exams from freshman and early sophomore year when I’d done well and compared them to the one’s I’d failed, often times in classes that were a continuation or the next step of the class I’d done well in. I asked myself why was I acing exams one semester and bombing them the next?
From there I was able to engineer a solution. With my exams side by side it became clear that the one’s I’d done well on had one or two line problem statements and the ones I’d failed were four or more lines, sometimes even paragraphs of problem statements and data.
It turned out that for me, being better or faster wasn’t the answer. The key was slowing down and taking time to process and understand the information before moving forward. I hadn’t learned to ride a bike overnight or jump into a pool and instantly know how to swim; engineering exactly the same. I needed to take a step back and learn slowly, to take the time to practice and build my way up by learning from failure.
And that’s what engineering has always been about. Finding a million and one ways something won’t work, piecing together all the data, and learning from it so that eventually you can find the one way it will work. After that, the impossible suddenly didn’t seem so far-fetched after all.
While many engineering paths seem ripe with failure, it’s about what we do with that failure that is most important. And while I did end up with a D on my final transcript, it turned out it didn’t stand for done at all. It stood for DIPLOMA, and DEGREE as that’s what I ended up with; two degrees in Aerospace Engineering. But most of all I tell people that the D is actually my badge of honor. After all, that D represented DETERMINATION and DRIVE, which is exactly what I needed to become an engineer.
Jamie Krakover is a manager for the legacy F/A-18 strength and design team in Boeing Global Services at the Boeing Company. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from Purdue University and a Master’s degree also in Aerospace Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. Passionate about inspiring young people to pursue STEM fields, Jamie mentors an all-girls FIRST Robotics team, has volunteered at the annual FIRST Robotics national championship, and is an active participant on the EngineerGirl website. In her spare time, Jamie leverages her engineering knowledge to write children’s science fiction and fantasy. She has two short stories published in the Brave New Girls anthologies that feature female characters who have a knack for STEM. Proceeds from Brave New Girls benefit the SWE scholarship fund.