Sunday, September 13, 2009

My journey from high school to grad school

After finishing my master's in engineering at Carleton University a few weeks ago, I have begun to reminisce about my life, and more specifically, what I want to share with you in this blog. I thought about my experiences at last year's Grace Hopper conference, about my experiences as co-founder and external affairs executive of WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), and about my experiences as a teaching assistant. I realized that, even though my thesis was a struggle, the past 2 years have been the best years of my life and I am very thankful for that. I would like to share my personal experiences with you.

I vaguely remember high school, but I remember that I felt like a somebody. I did well academically, I won awards and bursaries, all the teachers saw great potential in me, I got along with the "nerds" and the "cool" people (which doesn't really mean anything in life beyond high school), I was voted best dressed in my last year, I discovered I had a passion for writing poetry, I was a Peer Helper Leader, I was a photographer for the Yearbook, and I founded the Anti-Abuse Team. Outside of school I was becoming a kick butt martial artist and spent a lot of time with my family. I believe that my parents worked very hard to make sure I developed strong family values and that I enjoyed spending time with them. As a result, my social life was at a minimum before I reached adulthood. Maybe good, maybe bad, but I seem to have turned out well.

Moving on, when it came time to choose what I wanted to study next, I knew I wanted to get into engineering or computer science. My mom has a master's in civil engineering so she wanted me to go into that. But my primary goal was to study something very challenging as I felt that high school didn't do it for me. Now that I think about it, I believe it was the teachers that made me that confident, hehe. So I chose to go into engineering physics because I liked physics and I didn't want to be restricted only to programming. But the main reason was because it was known as the most difficult program in engineering at Carleton. And so it was.

Undergrad turned out to be the biggest shock of my life. I wasn't at the top of my class anymore and the boys had caught up with me. Even though I ended up ranking 4th out of 11 students in my program (and the top female) and 30th out of all 354 engineering students, I still felt like a fraud. I condemned myself that I didn't do it alone. I survived the program because I got a lot of help from the "smart ones" and because I had the discipline to work hard. What a wake up call that was. I remember consistently being stressed and pressed for time, I was jealous of anyone who had a weekend off, and I can admit that there were days when I broke down into tears. On the positive side, I think the Engineering Physics Program was still the best choice for me as it was like going to the academic army. I obviously got what I asked for. Engineering physics students became problem-solving soldiers. For example, we were taught to write down all assumptions, be very precise in our error analysis, to never ever forget units, and to always explain all the possible causes of error in our results. We began to realize that the results didn't matter as much as the accuracy of the results and how the accuracy could be increased. But enough with the nerdy talk.

Upon graduation, I decided I'm still not smart enough to enter the real world. So I signed up for grad school in the department of electronics. But meanwhile I went backpacking to Europe. After the 2-month trip, I didn't want to come back to school but at the same time I knew travelling some more was going to make me feel unaccomplished. So I came back and started my thesis early. For 2 months I researched possible topics for my thesis and it was in those 2 months that I somehow got into WISE. I remember the exact steps that I took to get there. One, I felt liberated of my primary duty to get a bachelor's degree. Two, I missed the good old days in high school when I was more involved in my school community. And three, I was very upset I didn't get an NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) or an OGS (Ontario Graduate) scholarship. I'm not sure if I should be ashamed of this but that's when it hit me the most. I thought, man I worked so hard, had good grades, and even published a research paper, but still I wasn't good enough. So I googled "women, engineering, and Carleton" and found a crappy looking website about Carleton's WISE group. I thought to myself: this is my chance to show them there's more to me than they think. I knew I wasn't an average engineer with average skills and most definitely not an average woman.

The WISE Carleton representative, Tarah, got back to me and invited me for coffee. When I met her at Rooster's, I was surprised to see that another woman was there to meet Tarah. Her name was Serena and she was in computer science. That meeting was another shock in my life because I felt like I just got connected to a whole new world and it made my heart smile. A few months later Serena and I recruited Gail, Natalia and Lindsay, and all 5 of us re-built Carleton's WISE group (and that website is definitely far from crappy looking now). My primary goal wasn't to help more women get scholarships as that is the train of thought that led me to be involved in this group. Upon meeting these awesome women, I realized that they are the support group I needed to help me reach my goals... and I wanted to help other women attain that too. By the way, I ended up getting that OGS scholarship in my second year of grad school as well as a Carleton Graduate Student Association Honour Award for my work with WISE, and a scholarship to help pay for attending the Grace Hopper conference this year (I also applied last year but didn't receive one).

So how has WISE benefited me? I never know where to start when someone asks me that. Here is my short answer: I now have an awesome support group of women executives who I want to one day start a business with. Who would have thought that I'd have the ambition and the confidence for that? Not to mention that it's not easy to find a group of people you get along with in a business environment. All 5 of us have a wide range of knowledge and abilities, but we share common values and goals, which make us a great team. If you're interested in reading more about what I learned through WISE, I wrote a blog about it on the Grace Hopper blog here.

I am now trying to develop my own vision in hopes of attaining it one day. But I will never forget to give back to my community and I will never forget WISE.