SWE Stories: Tales from the Archives- Mentoring Pt. 1
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Troy Eller English:
Welcome to SWE Stories: Tales from the Archives. I’m Troy Eller English, archivist for the Society of Women Engineers.
And I’m Anne Perusek, SWE’s director of editorial and publications. At SWE, we’ve been thinking and talking about mentors and the impact they can have on a person’s career. And that reminded Troy and I about many of the stories that members have shared in oral history interviews with SWE about the mentors they had, and the people they mentored. Other members, particularly women who became engineers in the early and 20th century, told us that they didn’t have mentors to help them through, and that they had to find their engineering path on their own. Today, we’re going feature the stories SWE members have shared about the value mentors played in their early lives and in college. And be sure to join us for our next episode, when we’ll explore the impact mentors had on SWE members’ professional careers.
We have some really interesting letters in SWE’s archives written by Elsie Eaves. Born in 1898, she received a degree in civil engineering in 1920 from the University of Colorado. She worked for several years as a draftsman for the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Company. However, in 1926 she was hired by the McGraw-Hill publishing company to work on the editorial staff for the Engineering News-Record newspaper, and her work there for the next 37 years made her one of the few nationally visible women engineers in mid-century America. Additionally, in 1927, she became the first woman accepted into the American Society of Civil Engineers as a full member. So, because of her prominent position, faculty members and young women interested in engineering would write to her for advice. We have many of these letters written to and by Eaves. But the advice she gave was not necessarily as warm and encouraging as we might assume, and this was especially true for the letters she wrote in the 1930s, when the country was in the midst of the Great Depression.
Yes, in fact, in a 1931 letter to professor Bruce Greenshields of Denison University, she explained, “I discourage them because if they want to do it badly enough they will go ahead anyway. If they have not enough enthusiasm and initiative to go ahead on their own, I feel that they will make little headway in this field while there are still so few women in it. I see no excuse for urging women to take up engineering just to prove they can do it successfully.” She continued, “On the other hand, I am very glad to see girls with unusual ability working into this field quietly and naturally, for I think there are many opportunities for them to do constructive work.”
And she wasn’t kidding about providing discouragement. Following a request for college and career advice in 1935 from a Miss Helen Tracey, Eaves concluded her letter with this: “Civil engineering is predominantly a man’s profession and is set up and organized to employ men. There are many functions in civil engineering that a girl can handle with ability, but she should have such a genuine liking for the work and such a genuine interest in what she wants to do that she will be able to overcome the handicap of the habit of thinking of men as the only ones trained for that type of work. Unless you have exceptional talent in mathematics, mechanics and analytical ability together with a lot of patience and love of hard work, I suggest that you would find easier fields to get ahead in than civil engineering.”
That was some very frank advice. Eaves went on to become a founding member of SWE in 1950 and was among its first Fellows in 1980. Happily, her advice softened somewhat as she saw the number of women in engineering grow. It’s interesting to see how members’ ability to connect with mentors has really changed over the years. In her 2003 oral history interview, Dr. Margaret Taber remembered the dearth of mentors available to her at Cleveland State University, where she graduated with bachelor degrees in electrical engineering and engineering science in 1958. In the following excerpt, which has been edited for length, she reflected on what having a mentor would have meant to her.
Margaret Taber oral history excerpt:
Margaret Taber: It would have been nice to have somebody to share some of my experiences with when I went through school. This is one of the things that — we have a scholarship at Purdue for women in technology. And this is one thing that I put on as a requirement, is mentoring, that you’d have a woman that had — the scholarship contact a woman coming in as a freshman, and letting her know that you’re there, and if you have a tough time, why don’t you give me a call.
I think I would have really appreciated that when I was going through school, because I know there were a couple periods I was ready to give up. And I know I don’t cry very often, but I know there were some times that I really had some deep sobs where I thought — because I had done poorly in a course, or I didn’t understand what was happening, and I didn’t feel there was anybody I could turn to, to help me.
Lauren Kata: Do you think that SWE is there now for women?
Taber: I think so. And I think it’s important that you do — that they do the mentoring process, that somebody that’s a junior or senior really can talk to freshmen. Because one, even just by you being a junior or senior shows them that women can make it. And then if that woman did have some tough times, which I’m sure that someplace in their career they had a tough time, that they thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t be here,” or, “This is the wrong course,” or, “I should change,” or something like that, is to be able to share that experience. […]
So it’s really great if you can talk to people that have been down a similar road. Nobody’s been down the same road that you’ve been down. You can’t really walk in somebody else’s shoes, but if they have some experiences, you can tell when you’re talking with them that they have suffered, and it’s then kind of a bond, and it really does help.
In a 2014 SWE Grassroots Oral History Project interview, Fellow and Society past president Kathleen Harer recalled just what difference a mentor made to her academic career. She received a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Washington in 1970. Recalling being the only female freshman studying aerospace engineering, in her oral history interview Harer credited her persistence in engineering to her early contact with Irene Peden, an electrical engineering faculty member there at the university who later became a SWE Achievement Award recipient and Society Fellow. The following excerpt has been edited for length.
Kathleen Harer oral history excerpt:
She got the freshmen together on Fridays — brown bag lunch and we just got to know each other. We talked about things we were having problems with. And, again, I was very shy. I hardly spoke up at all and I was also intimidated because they all seemed to be adjusting much better than I was [laughs] — used to men teachers, used to these types of classes and stuff. So I didn’t really speak up that much. But the fact that we got together and Irene made us feel welcome and was willing to talk to anybody about anything — it made a difference. It really helped again with that decision later on to stick with it and become an engineer. […]
And Irene I didn’t see much of after freshman year because she was electrical engineering and I never had any of her classes. When she was selected for Fellow, we had a reception at the convention — conference — and I told her what impact she had. And she said, “You know, nobody — I always wondered if it had any impact on anybody,” because nobody ever told her or gave her any feedback. And I said, “Believe me, for at least one student it made a heck of a lot of difference.” And that had an impact on me because it made me realize that sometimes everybody can have an impact, be a mentor and not even know it, or be a role model. And you’ve got to be careful what you say and do, and do your best to be supportive of other people, because just a few kind words can make a huge difference to somebody along the way.
Allison Machetemes Lunde, who served on the Society’s board as its collegiate director in 2011, also talked about the confidence that her mentors helped her develop at Iowa State University. She discussed those meaningful relationships during a an oral history interview with you, Troy, at the 2011 SWE Annual Conference, shortly after completing her degree in civil engineering and an MBA.
Allison Machtemes Lunde oral history excerpt:
Machtemes Lunde: At Iowa State I had mentors, especially through SWE. Like, faculty that you meet through the SWE events that I participated in. They kind of mentored me. I think they were all very informal mentoring, but it was definitely mentoring. And then within the department, there was probably three faculty members—I really valued their opinion and they valued mine. So it was more discussion of, like, “What should I do with my life? What direction should you give me?” Like, “I don’t understand why the curriculum is set up like this. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t apply any of what we’ve learned in this class to outside, from my experiences, so I think it needs to be changed.” So I think mentoring went both ways, and I had a big variety of mentors, you know, even outside of SWE. It was very informal, though.
Eller English: What do you think that you’ve gotten from those relationships?
Machtemes Lunde: I think confidence is one of them, because at times I can feel really not confident about myself, like I may not have the skills to do it. Because someone sometimes has to nudge me, you know, like, “This is okay, you can do it. If you mess up, it’s still okay.” And I think just direction for what I wanted to do. Like, it reaffirmed—because for a while there I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. And then kind of talking to faculty and other people in the position out in industry, I was like, “No, I don’t think that’s what I really want to do.” You know, they really told me what a structural engineer would do, and what I wanted to do versus what a lawyer would do. So it kind of brought me back to the engineering path. So I think they—because you don’t really know when you’re looking at something, what the real story is behind some stuff. So I think mentors really helped me keep me on track, and helped me give confidence to—what I was doing was the correct path for me.
Faculty members can be formative mentors for students, however their peers can be just as valuable. Prinda Wanakule, who received the Society’s Outstanding Collegiate Member Award in 2011, joined SWE as a freshman at the University of Florida, and was very active in the Society throughout her graduate studies in nanoscience and nanotechnology at the University of Texas at Austin. A week after defending her dissertation, she talked about the importance of of peer-to-peer mentorship within SWE during an oral history interview at the 2012 SWE Annual Conference. She particularly recalled a mentoring event from her time as an undergraduate involved with the University of Florida SWE section when she was an undergraduate student.
Prinda Wanakule oral history excerpt:
Wanakule: I chaired what’s called the eSWAMP event. It’s short for Engineering in the Swamp. And it’s a freshmen and transfer orientation event—a full-day event out at a lake nearby in Gainesville for all of the incoming women engineering students and the transfer students. And the idea is really to have them develop a sense of camaraderie, introduce them to a couple of mentors that are older engineering students, and do a little bit of professional development for them that day. And we’re actually kind of evaluation now to see who—the people who have taken part in this program versus the people who did not take part in that program, if there was any effect on retention now. So we’ll be interested to see how those numbers come out.
Eller English: Absolutely. Do you feel like the women coming into the program are at some disadvantage to the men coming into the program that they need this additional mentorship?
Wanakule: I think that they might be at a disadvantage when they go to their large classes and see that, you know, they’re one of very few women in the class. And sometimes you really do need a strong support network around you. And I’ve never gotten the type of support from my male colleagues that I have from, you know, your SWE sisters—your SWEsters. My SWE friends have always been my engineering cheerleaders, kind of. They are always encouraging me to reach to a higher level, you know, set higher standards for myself, and to do more than I think that I was capable of doing. And so I think that is really important to have a group of women behind you to tell you that, yes, you can do that, and we’ll do it together. And that definitely helped me.
Wanakule also explained how the peer network she created while building programming for graduate students in SWE helped her to navigate both the academic and interpersonal hurdles that she encountered while pursuing her doctorate.
Prinda Wanakule oral history excerpt:
Wanakule: I mean, there’s a lot of low moments in your PhD, and it’s really helpful to have that SWE graduate committee there. I mean, in my lab, although there was a lot of women in my lab who were all—we’re all pretty good friends. At the same time we’re also work colleagues, and so I can’t talk to them about conflicts that I’m having with them. And you can talk about these kind of things with your SWE friends, and they can offer support and advice for how to deal with it. And sometimes it’s the simple fact of knowing that somebody else is going through a similar experience and that you’re not alone in it. And so it really has helped me, I guess, keep on going throughout the years.
Support networks for women studying engineering have certainly changed since the time Elsie Eaves offered her tepid advice to aspiring women engineers in the 1930s. In our next episode of SWE Stories: Tales from the Archives, we’ll hear SWE members talk about the impact mentors had on their professional careers. On behalf of myself, Troy, and everyone else at SWE, thanks for listening.