In celebration of Pride Month, SWE will be highlighting outstanding members in a series of blog posts showcasing their professional and personal accomplishments.
In this article, we will be highlighting Rachel Walker (Undergraduate Senior at the University of Kentucky, studying Mechanical Engineering with an Aerospace Certificate) and Laurel Hunt (Mechanical Engineer and Future Peace Corps Volunteer).
Rachel Walker // Undergraduate Senior at the University of Kentucky
Rachel is an undergraduate senior at the University of Kentucky, studying Mechanical Engineering with an Aerospace Certificate. She is interested in the aerospace industry, particularly manned spaceflight. She has been a member of SWE since 2016 and is involved with the section at her university. SWE has given her great chances to talk to employers, learn more about internship opportunities, and do outreach events. Through these opportunities and others, she has had four internships; one at Toyota and three with NASA at the Johnson Space Center.
Last fall Rachel interned with the Mission Operations Directorate at the Johnson Space Center. She got to work on projects to support real-time operations on the International Space Station (ISS). To learn about ISS systems, she got to take 20+ On-Orbit Maintenance classes, which are the classes that the astronauts take to learn how to use and repair the systems on the ISS. They were hands-on and provided a great insight into some of the tasks that the crew have to complete during their time on-orbit! She was thrilled to get to go through a small part of the training that the astronauts complete.
Rachel enjoys connecting with other queer people in engineering, because it has helped her build a strong and close-knit community and expand her knowledge of the world and see many situations from a new perspective. Pride is important to her: at JSC last summer, she marched in the Houston Pride Parade with NASA with people from so many different areas of the company. This year, she says, it has been powerful to see the queer community come together in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and see LGBTQ groups educating their members and taking real action.
Rachel’s advice to young queer folks is to consider joining employee resource groups when possible:
“it’s really amazing to get to connect with people in the workplace. They can be a great support system for navigating the workplace and a good place to make friends and go to fun events.”
Above all, she says being yourself is the most important part: “the unique experiences that make you you will give you a new perspective that is so helpful in engineering and other problem-solving areas!”
Laurel Hunt // Mechanical Engineer and Future Peace Corps Volunteer
Laurel Hunt (she/ her) is a 24-year-old mechanical engineer, future Peace Corps volunteer, and proud queer woman. After growing up in Madison, WI, she left her friends and family for the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, where she studied engineering and Spanish. After graduating, Laurel worked in R&D at Andersen Windows in the Twin Cities and Dubuque, IA.
Laurel is a big proponent of LGBTQ equality in engineering and seeks to create that community wherever she is. While studying at the University of Minnesota, she co-founded and served as president of the Out in STEM chapter there. During her two years at Andersen, she founded and chaired the PRIDE+ employee network and contributed to the women’s network newsletter.
“As a queer woman in engineering, I’m used to feeling out of place,” she says. “I’ve had many long days of being the only woman, the only young person, and the only queer person in the room. I’m also used to finding and building the community that I want and need, wherever I am. Being able to talk to just one other person who knows what it’s like is a wonderful thing. And having an entire group of people who are as passionate about LGBTQ+ equity as myself, who will work together to make positive change — it’s a dream come true.” However, she does acknowledge that being out in the workplace is complicated, and that it’s a very individual choice: “While I’m so happy that I could be a visible, out-and-proud professional, I am glad I was able to come out professionally when the time was right for me. I have lots of friends who are out in their daily lives but not at work, and that’s the right decision for them, too.”
This Pride month is especially significant to Laurel because it harkens back to the foundations of pride: “though it took a tragedy, our community is honoring the trailblazers of LGBTQ rights — the trans women and drag queens and homeless youth of color at Stonewall — through a renewed commitment to racial justice.” Additionally, the Supreme Court just ruled that federal civil rights law protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination – a huge, long-overdue milestone for us all.
Her best advice for LGBTQ engineers entering the field is:
“know there are community members everywhere, even where you’d least expect it. From my internships and jobs in semi-rural parts of the Midwest to my current job aboard a barge in Alaska, I’ve found both community members and friends literally everywhere I’ve gone.”
She encourages identifying role models early on. Knowing brilliant women and queer engineers has been inspiring, she says, and can create personal and professional confidence: “it took creating a community of LGBTQ students and inviting monthly guest speakers, and attending several LGBTQ conferences, for me to feel confident that a queer engineer like myself could survive and succeed.”
Recently, Laurel left Andersen to peruse an opportunity working on operations and maintenance of rural water and wastewater treatment systems in Peru with the Peace Corps, which has been delayed. In the meantime, she’s spending the summer working with the engineering and maintenance team aboard Northline Seafoods’ fish processing barge in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Although her plans have been disrupted by COVID-19, she remains optimistic: “I have the incredible gift of time and freedom to chart my own course. It’s exciting and terrifying as I think about my next steps.”