Penny Wirsing Bids SWE Presidency Farewell

As many presidents before me have noted in their final articles, it is so hard to believe that my year has already come to an end, and impossible to capture in a few paragraphs all the wonderful things I’ve experienced and people I’ve met.
Penny Wirsing

“Penny Wirsing Bids SWE Presidency Farewell,” is titled “Let’s Break Boundaries” in the SWE Magazine fall issue.


FY19’s theme was “Let’s Break Boundaries,” and it seemed a fitting tagline for so many of SWE’s accomplishments. That was certainly evident at WE18 in Minneapolis, where we welcomed more than 14,000 attendees. I truly enjoyed recognizing some amazing people with the numerous awards, and spending time with so many great friends, old and new.

It was also a year in which we implemented some of the final touches on the governance changes, such as the nominating committee’s putting forth a slate including senators and chairs-elect for the standing Society committees. I know they spent many long hours, and I appreciate how their efforts paid off with a roster of very capable leaders for FY20. We also saw the rollout of the new SWE website, with many new features and upgrades. I hope you’ve had a chance to check it out!

Being president brought with it a number of interviews and speaking opportunities through magazines, podcasts, and in-person events, and I found that one of the best parts of my role was having a chance to interact with truly remarkable people from around the world. This was definitely apparent in some of the many podcasts I recorded with accomplished women from some of our corporate partners, as well as engineering deans at NYU and the University of Missouri. I was also interviewed by my own daughter for a special Mother’s Day podcast, a sort of “StoryCorps” discussion about my professional and SWE careers, and how they have positively impacted her career choices.

I served as the keynote speaker for UCLA’s Evening with Industry in January, and for Kettering University’s International Women’s Day celebration in March. Both events were an opportunity to share some of my professional and SWE career learnings and encourage the attendees to gain skills outside of the workplace (such as through SWE!) that can help advance their careers.

In May I was extremely honored to be recognized with the Distinguished Alumni Award from Lansing Community College, where I started my education following high school. It was humbling to reflect on how far I’ve come since taking my first class there at the age of 18, and to help highlight how important a community college education can be.

I was also honored to receive the Claud Erickson Distinguished Alumni Award from Michigan State University. The College of Engineering’s highest alumni award, it was made all the more special by the fact that I was nominated by fellow Spartan and former SWE Executive Director and CEO Betty Shanahan, CAE, F.SWE. I am certain that the opportunities I’ve had through SWE to grow and lead, and my accomplishments within SWE and as SWE president, were important considerations in receiving this award. As the Claud Erickson recipient, I had the honor of giving the commencement speech for the College of Engineering, where I discussed “breaking boundaries” and how they, as graduating engineers, can help ensure that all the young women currently graduating remain in engineering over the long term, by recognizing unconscious bias and actively working to improve organizational climate to be more inclusive.

Photo of Penny Wirsing with her husband and her daughter
Receiving the Claud Erickson Distinguished Alumni Award from Michigan State University was an honor I was proud to share with my husband and daughter.

I am so thankful that I was able to travel quite extensively representing SWE. I was always warmly welcomed wherever I went, and was moved by how well respected SWE is around the U.S. and the world. I traveled to Pune, India, in December to help John Deere celebrate the exciting 10-year anniversary of its WomenREACH employee resource group. While there, I visited the Maharashtra Institute of Technology – World Peace University (MIT-WPU) and the Cummins College of Engineering for Women, both SWE affiliates, as well as C.B.T. Sadhana Kanya Vidyalaya, a school for almost 5,000 young women from grades 5-10. There is a blog providing more details of this once-in-a-lifetime trip on All Together.

I attended WE Local conferences in Tampa, Denver, and Bellevue, meeting many old friends and making new ones across the country. The WE Local events have really been well received and have gotten bigger and better every year! I also attended the WE Local in Bengaluru, India. It was great to see many of the people I had met a few months previously, and to wear the sari and kurta I had purchased in Pune. My final international trip as president was to the WE Local in Berlin, Germany, and I was fortunate to be able to extend my visit with an additional two-week vacation across central Europe with my husband.

photo collage of Penny Wirsing
TOP: At the WE Local in Bengaluru, India, I lit the oil lamp accompanied, from left, by two SWE members from India as well as then-president-elect Cindy Hoover, and Karen Horting, SWE executive dIrector and CEO. TOP RIGHT: Taking a moment to express our exuberance at WE Local Bellevue. ABOVE LEFT: Another moment from the WE Local in Bengaluru. ABOVE RIGHT: AT WE18, I had a “fireside chat” with keynote speaker Cindy Kent, whose inspiring address on Thursday morning set a dynamic tone for the conference. Kent is former president and general manager of 3M’s Infection Prevention Division.

One of the more unusual — and fun — things I was able to participate in was the selection committee for the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF). This committee reviewed dozens of inventors being considered for induction into the Hall of Fame next year. It was pretty cool to learn about the amazing inventors, both current and historic, and take part in the process to determine the inductees. One of the take-aways from that interaction is that I’m working with my local school district to bring the NIHF Camp Invention® to Southern California next summer.

As some of you know, toward the end of my term as president, I retired from my position as environmental manager at Torrance Refining Co. Many thanks to PBF Energy for their support during my term, and I wish them all the best as they continue to support their women engineers as a new member of SWE’s Corporate Partnership Council.

Last, but certainly not least, I would like to recognize the outstanding FY19 board of directors and all of the hardworking staff at SWE headquarters. Although the president serves as the “face” of SWE, it is only through the efforts of the entire organization that we continue to thrive and grow — and SWE is most definitely thriving and growing. That’s something we should all be very proud of!

Penny Wirsing Bids SWE Presidency Farewell

Penny Wirsing
SWE FY19 President
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