This article was originally published on workingparentstories.com.
[Penny’s speech begins at approximately at approximately 5:00]
Is there a typical “working parent”? Maybe. But many people have unique situations. It’s easy to meet someone and make assumptions, but often those assumptions are wrong, and the reality of someone’s situation contains some unexpected elements.
That’s what happened recently when Penny Wirsing, the 2019 President of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), gave her MSU commencement speech at the Michigan State University College of Engineering. Her speech was encouraging and inspiring. So much so that we contacted her and asked if we could share the content with Working Parent Stories readers.
One thing Penny didn’t mention in her MSU commencement speech, and it supports the point that assumptions can be inaccurate, is the story about how and why she became an engineer. While she was a trailblazer at the time she obtained her degree, there is more to her story.
Before Penny started college she married, had a daughter, and divorced. As a single mother, she became a secretary in order to support her small family. It didn’t take long for her to realize that she would not be able to live the life she envisioned for her daughter and herself on a secretary’s salary, so she headed in another direction and started down the path to pursue an engineering degree.
She started taking community college classes as she continued working. That enabled her to attend evening classes while she continued to work full-time. And the community college courses were less expensive than those offered at universities.
While working full-time, she completed enough courses to enter Michigan State University (MSU) as a junior. While there, Penny felt as though she didn’t fit in with the other students. Only about 25% of the students were female back then, but it was her status as parent and breadwinner that made her feel the most out-of-place. As she juggled a job and parenting with her classes, the other students were juggling their coursework with dorm living and other extracurricular activities.
Most would agree that pursuing a college degree is challenging and that parenthood is challenging too, but few of us attempt to do both at the same time. Penny said she was able to pull it off by focusing on things one step at a time.
A benefit of Penny’s situation was that while she was a student, she was also a teacher with a very attentive pupil; her daughter. Her daughter learned that if you want to do something, and you’re willing to put in the work, you are likely to get it done. Penny, like most parents, could have told her these things, but she believes that showing her had a more meaningful impact. And it appears to have worked, given that her daughter is now grown and pursuing a career of her own as a Federal Attorney.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that while we’re working and learning, we’re also teaching. And we’re never sure exactly who is watching or who will learn the most.