Tale of an Engineering School dropout

Months back I saw a LinkedIn post sharing an interesting job opening. University of California, Berkeley’s College of Engineering was looking to fill a position for an assistant dean of equity and inclusion. The idea behind the newly created position was to impact the climate and culture of the college and help it carry out its stated mission statement of educating an inclusive group of leaders and impacting equity.

U.C. Berkeley College of Engineering, Image by the Daily Cal

I wasn’t that surprised that a major university was seeking to be more inclusive in such demographically skewed course of study. Look at Pew research. Women are 47% of overall workforce yet occupy only 15% of engineering jobs while Blacks make up 11% of the nation’s workforce but hold 5% engineering jobs. One in four students is Latinx and this group represents 17% of the workforce, but only 8% hold science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM) positions.

But the truth is the U.C. Berkeley announcement grabbed my attention for more personal reasons. I knew the price of turning a blind eye to the blight of the under-represented STEM student because I had once been one. In the 80s I been enrolled in the college of engineering at Cal for five weeks.

Five weeks to sink at Cal Engineering

I completed a two year associate’s in science degree or what’s called the engineering core at a community college near my hometown in the Chicago Northwest Suburbs. Then I transferred to U.C. Berkeley engineering school as a junior.

Quickly, I began to sink. I was away from home for the first time, overloaded academically and overwhelmed emotionally. I had taken too heavy of a course load. My mother had passed away less than a year before after two years battling breast cancer. The boyfriend who’d grown into my primary source of support over the prior three years suddenly deserted me two days before classes started.

Dropping out of Engineering was a source of embarrassment. I felt shame at letting my counselor at my community college down after the many hours she spent on the phone with U.C. Berkeley, Square D that had awarded me the scholarship to attend engineering school when I was a bright and idealistic 17-year-old high school student and myself who had so much wanted to break gender stereotypes by entering a field where I could be prosperous in a way my parents couldn’t.

Without completely realizing it, I’ve carried this failure on my shoulders for all this time.

What responsibility do higher education institutions have in retaining STEM students?

In the past year, I’ve realized that my attraction to working with STEM organizations that promote diversity and inclusion comes from a desire to help kids like me and those with even more challenges to overcome than I had. I’ve found allies like Erin Twamley author of the STEM Superheroes series, who hold that passion for shifting stereotypes and opening more access for girls and kids of color to imagine themselves in STEM careers.

Image care of Chambanamoms.com

Recently, while assisting with the 50 Top Colleges and Universities for Latinx Students in STEM report by Calculus Roundtable, I listened to young Latinas relate their experiences as college students in STEM disciplines. Hearing the students talk about not feeling comfortable reaching out to professors for help, I realized that systemic forces were also at work.

Also, seeing the U.C.Berkeley position that focused on inclusion made me wonder if a different scenario could’ve played out if more support had been in place at the time.

I thought about the emotional support offered by the University at the time. They offered six counseling sessions as part of the package of being enrolled. I tried to take advantage of it. I sought out help in the counseling department but they thought that I had needed too much help for them to be able to deal with. So they sent me out to find something out in the big world. Well, I didn’t have money, connections or other resources to actually pursue that. So I ended up dropping out. And I see now that that was a something that I always blame myself for.

Image care of WellandGood.com

But now that we are studying this equity and access and women in STEM careers. It seems clear that there was a lack of support a lack of planning my scholarship that I got for the first two years that I got from Square D/Snieder Electric.

They could have done better supporting a non-traditional student. I was awarded the scholarship because I was a well-rounded, non-traditional student. They were looking for well-rounded students, non-geeks who were interested in the arts, sports, or interested in writing.

From an Elk Grove, IL warehouse to the green U.C. Berkeley campus

Since my math and science grades were good but not Cal Engineering good, I always considered the essay I wrote in my application to US Berkeley the main reason for getting accepted. In more cosmic moments I wondered whether my mom pulled some strings from the other side of reality.

I guess that’s what they’re now calling imposter syndrome that kind of not feeling good enough to belong.

Anyway, I had written them an amazing application essay about my experience in working in a warehouse, I had been brought up in a very segregated area of Chicago hadn’t had any contact with people of color, least of all with African American people, and in the warehouse we had access we had contact and we worked closely with people from Chicago’s South Side who came in daily on a bus. For me it was a very eye opening experience we made friends and had a lot of camaraderie.

Warehouses in Elk Grove Village, Illinois thanks to Wikipedia Commons.

I didn’t mention Nikita, the first guy to serenade me. He was a tall, lanky kind guy in his early 20s with his hair tightly braided to his head. Whenever the song, “Oh Sheila” would come on the music played on the warehouse speakers, he’d locate me and start dancing around me singing the refrain. I’d turn bright red and say stop. I hated that song and was very shy about all that attention.

In my essay I included Joe short little guy from South Africa who was always trying to justify apartheid to these big black guys from the South Side, and I remember Nikita and him, arguing about that. Nikita was about twice as high as Joe but no fights ever broke out it.

So I had written about the warehouse and how I was looking to you know get out of my White suburban bubble. Those were the days when the Midwest lagged behind California in diet. Nonfat yogurt and tofu were a thing in the Bay Area while we were still eating processed meat, vegetables from a can and sugary yogurt. So I mentioned wanting to live in a place where the food was healthy in my essay as well.

photo care of freepik

Family dynamics didn’t help my situation. From an early age, my father made it clear that he wasn’t paying for college. Since I knew I wanted to go to college, I knew throughout high school that I had to work really hard to get a scholarship. I also knew that I didn’t want to stay in Illinois. The Square D 2+1 scholarship was my ticket out because it allowed me to transfer to a non-Illinois University after my two years at my junior college. And so I was able to move to California, my dream come true.

However, there was a lot more to that than meets the eye and being only 20, having recently lost my mother, and not really having that much support from my dad. There were those messages that I as a female had that I have to do it on my own. In a way that made me stronger but in another way it was just too much too fast.

And so it’s really exciting to see that there are actually a new position open at that same engineering school. That is really targeting those people at risk of dropping out because they have a lot of more odds to beat. It’s hard for everybody that’s why it’s an exclusive difficult school and a difficult course of study.

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Sheilamary Koch

Artist-educator passionate about equity, gender, conservation, creativity, mindfulness and breaking barriers for under-represented groups-especially girls!