“Why would you want to be an engineer? You’re so creative!” “You’re taking mechanics? I didn’t know you were interested in fixing cars.” “But you’re a girl. Construction isn’t for you. Maybe you can help with the painting.” “I thought you wanted to change the world, not build bridges. Why would you want to study engineering again?”
These were the comments from my co-workers, classmates and best friends that rattled my 17-year-old self-confidence. I was still very uncertain about future plans as I struggled to answer the same question on every application: Why engineering?
It was one variation of that prompt that not only made the reason obvious, but also subtly changed the trajectory of my college experience. “If you were given a $10,000 budget and the opportunity to build a small team of talented, motivated individuals, what would you propose to accomplish?” Although I couldn’t explain fully why I wanted to study engineering, I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish. I answered, “I would design and build an educational model for middle school children, particularly girls interested in studying math, science, engineering and other traditionally male-dominated fields. I would work with my team to create demonstrations and real-life situations that would provide evidence that science and math can be used to solve real-world problems that are exciting and challenging.”
Now fast forward a year and a half. I am sitting in the back row of a packed auditorium attending the Clinton Global Initiative University. Former President Bill Clinton offered his encouragement for my project, Girls Engineering Change, while explaining to the world the need for this commitment. To the auditorium audience and the international C-SPAN viewers, he relayed his concern that women were being under-utilized in the field of engineering.
Thanks to inspiring classes and incredible peers after just one semester at Duke, my modest idea had grown to new heights. Now I am working to create a full mentorship program, where university students partner with girls in middle and high school to create medical devices, which will be sent to developing world hospitals. In this way, they not only develop a relationship with an engineering student, but also have a tangible way to understand how they can use engineering to make an impact in the world. This project aims to combat the two preventative factors that keep girls from enrolling in STEM fields in the first place: lack of understanding and lack of encouragement.
When I submitted the answer to that essay question just two years ago, I would have never dreamed I would be where I am today. Right now, this commitment is morphing into a national campaign. I have been fortunate to assemble an incredible team of motivated “Pratt Stars” and accrue enough donations to spark the interest in Girls Engineering Change. I have found delightful and engaged participants in Durham, which has enabled me to promote a replicable model across the nation, and hopefully across the world as well. Thanks to donations from Durham organizations, Duke grants and even individuals who supported my idea, I have the funding to make this a reality. Within the next semester, this program can reach over 300 girls at five different college campuses across the nation. With hard work and support from Duke, CGIU, Engineering World Health and many more, we’ll be able to motivate and educate younger students to study engineering. I would be overjoyed if just one girl decided engineering was for her after participating in my program, Girls Engineering Change, the ultimate name of the idea that is now shaping into a non-profit organization.
But the most important thing I have realized from all of this is that you don’t have to be brilliant with a plethora of special talents and experiences to accomplish something in this world. Believe me, I’m not. As college students, as Duke students, the support, motivation, friends and colleagues to make things happen are ready and available to us. All it takes is a little idea that can be a catalyst for real change. So I’m going to ask you, all of you, who inspire me every single day: “If you were given a $10,000 budget and the opportunity to build a small team of talented motivated individuals, what would you propose to accomplish?” Now go do it.
Christine Schindler is a Pratt sophomore. This column is the sixth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by dPS members addressing the importance of social action, as told through personal narratives. You can follow dPS on Twitter @dukePS.