Mahati is a sophomore engineering student at Lafayette College and had a summer job as the secretary for an SAT tutoring clinic where I was working. When I asked Mahati if she would be willing to talk with me for our “Just a girl” series, she eagerly agreed. We met at a local Starbucks.
“I did have Barbies when I was younger, but my mom always made sure that I had Legos too. I used them to build houses for those Barbies,” Mahati tells me as we talk about the influences that led her to pursue engineering. Mahati is sitting across from me at a table in the Starbucks section of Barnes and Noble. She has just had her dark, long hair cut and styled; it frames her lovely dark, earnest eyes as we talk. Mahati is a sophomore at Lafayette College, majoring in electrical engineering.
“I can actually point to the experience that initiated my interest in electrical engineering,” Mahati said. “Our family are great movie fans, so my dad ordered a projection system for our basement theater and offered to pay me the rate he would give an electrician to hook it up.” At that time, Mahati was in tenth grade and was determined to figure out the complicated wiring and earn a few hundred dollars. She began as soon as her father left for work. When he came home in the evening (6 hours later), she had just about finished assembling the system with the exception of one missing piece, which her father located for her under a couch. Mahati called this experience “her epiphany.” Not satisfied wth aesthetics of the job, Mahati’s mom suggested they call in the electrician to tidy up, but Mahati’s father refused to change his daughter’s first electrical job. “Those wires are still hanging out of the ceiling,” Mahati laughs. She credits both of her parents with encouraging her to pursue a career in which she could be “successful and independent. They always urged me to strive and not be complacent — to always want more.”
Mahati also credits two teachers for giving her the courage to pursue her dream. The first was her high school geometry teacher who told her never to give up in spite of challenges. Mahati struggled with this class but only ended with a C average. In spite of the grade (unsatisfactory to Mahati), she feels that the teacher encouraged her to continue in spite of difficulty. Surprisingly, her Honors 11 English teacher was and is a very important source of inspiration. Mahati received a 60 on her first essay in this class, but with the teacher’s guidance and encouragement, Mahati learned to express her thinking in concise, focused and organized writing. Both of these teachers taught Mahati that success is not in grades but in “persevering and focusing on learning.”
Mahati chose Lafayette for a few reasons. First of all, it is small, having a total student population about the size of her high school graduating class. Because classes are small and professors know each student by name, she does not feel “anonymous” as she might in a larger setting. Another plus is that the school requires all students to take liberal arts courses. Mahati feels that liberal arts foster creativity and thinking. Coupled with the logic of engineering courses, the fit is perfect. Although it is a liberal arts college, Lafayette is rated one of the best undergraduate schools in engineering. The school offers limitless possibilities for future study and jobs. She was impressed by the companies and agencies, including NASA, that hire Lafayette graduates.
In spite of the positives, Mahati has encountered some of the challenges reported by girls who study in the STEM fields. There are only about 18 electrical engineering students in her group and only four are female. She related one encounter with a computer science professor: The five girls in the class were not getting the material and went to the professor for help. The teacher responded that “girls’ brains are too complex” that computer science “works better for boys.” Three of the five girls withdrew from the class, but Mahati and one other girl remained. With two or three weeks left in the course, Mahati was talking to an upperclassman who confided that the “professor had not expected any of the girls to remain.” Mahati has also had some challenges with male students. “Guys can be loud and obnoxious—sometimes it feels like they are ganging up on me.” Her strategy is to predict which males she can get on her side and make friends with them because their support “is necessary to survive.” She says that you need to be able to predict “who to get on your side.”
Girls who make it to the STEM careers are still rare. Mahati cited that “66% of fourth grade girls express an interest in math and science, but only 14% pursue it in college.” She feels that she has always struggled with not being good enough or smart enough but has learned to focus on her goal and believe that she can be successful – that she has the same abilities as her male peers. The women at Lehigh initiated a woman’s computing club to provide support for girls who are competing in a mostly male field. They plan to reach out to the freshman class to mentor more young women pursuing STEM degrees.
Mahati’s dream job is to work for an oil company in Texas or California. Her class in Energy and Society fascinated her and made her realize the concerning global dependence on oil. She would love to be part of the team looking for alternative energy sources and for more efficient production of oil.
Mahati’s advice: “Do not live life according to other people’s expectations. If you love engineering, math, computers, go for it, but be prepared to work hard and struggle.” She smiles and says, “Engineering is way too important to leave to only the guys. The diversity in thinking that girls provide will bring creativity and new ideas to the world of engineerng.”
Written by Peggy Walsh, a retired English teacher who is pleased to find a dedicated group of women who are committed to creating a safe, fair, and hopeful society for women and families. When she is not writing blogs, she is caring for her two grandchildren. Peggy keeps her hand in education through tutoring.