SWE works to preserve the life stories of influential women in engineering through its SWE Grassroots Oral History Project . In her interview, Alma Martinez Fallon discusses her experience immigrating to the United States; pursuing mechanical engineering as a reentry student; her career at Newport News Shipbuilding; her experience in SWE, including serving on the multicultural committee and on the board of directors, including as the FY04 president; how she leveraged her SWE leadership experience to impact her professional career; and the importance of professional mentorship.
A transcript of the entire interview is available here. Below we have pulled out highlights from the insightful life story of Alma Martinez Fallon.
About Alma Martinez Fallon
Fallon is a senior life Fellow and past president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). She is also a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and served on ASME’s board of governors. Among other awards, Fallon received the SWE Distinguished New Engineer award in 1997, the ASME Distinguished Service Award in 2002, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers Junipero Serra Award in 2004.
Childhood in Dominican Republic & immigrating to the US
Why did your parents move to New York?
“Just giving a little bit of history to the Dominican Republic—the Dominican Republic had a dictatorship from the 1920s into the early 1960s. [00:05:00] So if you were not in support of, or part of that community or network, things could have been really tough… And in mid-1960s there was a revolution in the Dominican Republic. And I personally experienced that as a seven-, eight-year-old, in terms of war, the revolution itself. Because it was right—it was there, seeing tanks, seeing airplanes. The first American that I ever saw was the marines. So that, I believe that lasted about six months—’65, ’66. And economically, things were not where my parents desired to be, and they felt that they could have a better life in the US.
Getting Introduced to SWE …Through FREE pizza
So you you were introduced to SWE while you were a student at Old Dominion?
Fallon: “Yes, yes. There was a sign that said, ‘Pizza party lunch.’ So, free lunch.So my friend Barbara and I—who was also reentry—we went to the meeting and we stayed loyal to SWE. We joined. When I think of it, having that level of support, as well, because SWE had engineering students that were ahead of us, and we also had women professors—professor. There was only I think one, maybe two at the time—that were there supporting the student section. So I wasn’t able to be very active because I was commuting, and I was off semesters co-opping. But as soon as I graduated from college, I reached out to SWE and went to my first—supported the local section, the Hampton Roads section. And my first conference—at the time, convention—was in 1991.”
Blending Professional and SWE Work
So did the company support your involvement in SWE?
Fallon: “Yes. My entire career I was supported, yes… So it was more or less an integrated SWE and working. It never really was, “I’m going to go to SWE and forget about work. I’m at work and I forget about SWE.” It was blended. So trying to manage the priorities, you know, what was important if I was at a SWE event, working and supporting the office.
SWE Multicultural Committee
So I’m wondering if we can just quickly circle back to your involvement on the multicultural committee, which spanned much of the 1990s. SWE,at that time, did not have a diverse membership, you know, for the most part. What did the multicultural committee do? What were you hoping to achieve?
Fallon: “So obviously I think awareness was the biggest thing. Because you can’t change things overnight, right? So our goal at the time was awareness and education. And also it was—you know, it was a committee that provided support for the women that were diverse. So you went into that committee and it felt comfortable. So from there, we also supported each other in terms of going to other areas within SWE. But what I remember was more—because we delivered in every conference workshops, and invited members of the board to attend, and committee chairs to attend. But again, it was more awareness, and education, and support for each other.”
Personal and Professional Value of SWE
Why have you stayed involved with SWE through all these years?
Fallon: “The friendships, number one, and the women that I’ve met that I would have never met, internationally, nationally, domestic. At this time it’s really the friendships, as a past president … But I still have informal relationships and informal positions through mentoring, at this time mentoring women that are in mid-career, twenty years behind me, fifteen years behind me. Currently I’m spending time mentoring those SWE members. If they call and they need support, have a question, or ask—I give them my time, and I give them my advice.”
SWE Can be a Stepping Stone
Fallon: “I just wanted to highlight that, because of my experience being a director, and being elected president, president-elect of SWE really positioned me to be able to run for governor of ASME. So that’s one way that SWE can influence other societies and other things, by positioning their leadership to move on to another level of position in another organization.”
The Importance of Mentorship
Fallon: “I wouldn’t be where I am today unless I had the advocacy and the mentors within SWE, within my company, Newport News Shipbuilding, and also within ASME…Have you ever heard of a poem that talks about, “friend for a season, friend for a reason—and friends long term? So you always have somebody walking into your life just for a time, and then they walk away. And they did something for you that changed your direction. You could be walking into somebody else’s life, and it made a difference. And then you part ways. You did your thing. And then you have friends that are there, you know, for a long time. So I’ve experienced that, and it’s just been—just so much gratitude.”