Engineer Your Future: Don't go it Alone, Own it, Create it

A few months ago I passed the exam required to call myself a Ph.D. candidate. Let me say that again, I passed! I am a candidate. I can say this without feeling like an imposter now, but it wasn't until I was on my way to earning my Ph.D. at Purdue and two years after I had graduated with my Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering that I finally felt like I was smart enough, that I deserved the opportunities I was encountering and that I would succeed.
Many people with backgrounds like mine struggle to find their way in fields like engineering;
that women have higher attrition rates from STEM majors, and that students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to leave college before graduating. In light of these disparities, I hope my story can provide confidence and lessons for young people who are carving their own unique path to graduation and a better life.

Lesson 1: Don't go it alone

In high school I had a lot of shame around being low-income and having parents without college degrees. I was unfamiliar with the college process. I was afraid of loans. I was worried about not being accepted and that I wasn't smart enough. I think the hardest barrier was not being able to ask my mom for help or go to her when I had important college questions. I might never have made it without support along the way. I found a college coach through
and she showed me the way forward and believed in my potential.
But I struggled in college, too. As the only woman of color in the engineering program and one of the few students coming from a low-income background, I had a hard time finding a place where I felt supported and accepted. I turned to my coach and found support through the Multicultural Student Services on campus. I learned the term "
" which helped me name and understand what I was experiencing. The hardest part was reaching out to existing resources and taking that first step toward becoming my own advocate. These support networks made a world of difference, and I'm excited to see the kinds of networks we build to support one another.

Lesson 2: Once you've got it, own it!

No one can take away my education and the knowledge I've gained. Every degree has been a boost of self-confidence. It gives me something to hold on to that is mine, that is earned, and that is irreplaceable. I have created a safety net for my future and I am finally at a point in my education where I know I am intelligent and strong, that academia benefits from my contributions. It took me a long time to get here though, don't get me wrong! I went through years and years of self-doubt despite continuing to rack up accomplishments and accolades. Maybe you also experience these feelings of inadequacy, and that's okay, but treat it like a bad habit that you are trying to break. We can break the cycle by building our networks and acknowledging and honoring our accomplishments.

Lesson 3: If the path doesn't exist, create it

There weren't many role models for me growing up who looked like I do and who were interested in science or engineering, so it was hard finding confidence as a student and believing that this was a place I belonged. Now however, I believe that my presence as a woman of color in engineering getting her Ph.D. sets a standard and an example for other young people interested in pursuing their own unique path, but lack confidence in their ability to succeed. I learned that just because there weren't many people who looked like me in my field, it didn't mean that that field wasn't for me, and that I had the power to change it. If you are reading this and are struggling to decide on entering or staying in a degree or career, don't quit because you doubt your abilities or worthiness. Go for it. It will be hard and--I won't lie--sometimes very isolating, but it is worth it and so are you.

About "GenDIY"
eduInnovation and Getting Smart have partnered with TheJ.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to produce a thought leadership campaign called Generation Do-It-Yourself (GenDIY) - how young people are hacking a pathway to a career they love - on The Huffington Post and GettingSmart.com. This campaign about reimagining secondary and postsecondary education and career skills will explore the new generation building a global economy and experiences that are impact driven and entrepreneurial.

Fushcia-Ann Hoover is a NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Purdue University. Follow her on Twitter, @DrFush.
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