Note from Katie: Destenie is a fellow Mitchell Scholar currently studying Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queen's University in Belfast. I'm particularly excited to feature her experiences in choosing a college and a major for two reasons. One, because she's so open-hearted and honest about the meandering process of choosing, and two because, as an engineer, she offers a perspective quite different from my own liberal arts background. I'm delighted to feature her writing on the site, and I hope you enjoy!
Choosing a Major...An Unconventional Method
I was 16 when it came time to apply to Universities. Like most teenagers I had no idea what I wanted to do. People love having choices in life, but at that point I felt like the infinite possibilities was almost paralyzing. I felt overwhelmed by the choices and the different outcomes that each outcome presented. Trying to make the right decision in terms of career, my future family, and everything all felt like it was riding on which college I chose to go to. That was a lot of pressure on a single decision for my 16-year old self.
I tried taking career aptitude tests, and talking to teachers to get some ideas on career choices. Ultimately I just decided to stick to what I knew. I knew I was good at math and school, so I decided to be a high school math teacher. It seemed like the perfect plan. My parents met at a Historically Black University (HBCU), so naturally I thought I would meet my husband at a HBCU. That helped me narrow my selection, in the vast array of university opportunities. Through talking to teachers and my guidance counselor I narrowed it down to North Carolina A&T State University and the University of Delaware. I applied and got accepted to both. I was not able to go on a college visit, so I used Google maps to "tour" the campus. I realized that Delaware State was in what appeared to be a medium city, and Greensboro was in a smaller city. Being from a small town, I choose the latter of the two choices.
When I reviewed my acceptance letter from North Carolina A&T State University I saw that instead of accepting me for Mathematics Education, they accepted me for Applied Mathematics. I was not happy that I was switched without notification, so I decided I should change to something else. My dad stressed that with engineering I could get a scholarship and a good job. Having two younger brothers, I did not want my educational pursuits to stop them from being able to attend good schools, so engineering became my new major. I quickly found that there is more than one discipline of engineering. Through many years of standardized testing experience I decided to use process of elimination to narrow down my choices. I did not know what civil and industrial engineering were. I did not like cars so mechanical was crossed off the list, and architectural engineering quickly followed because I cannot draw. My dad is an electrical engineer and my mom has a degree in computers. If they could do it I knew I could do it too.
Looking back I feel like this isn’t exactly the best decision-making process to a engineering degree. Luckily for me, this process of elimination led to a major that was a great fit for me, at a school that also proved to be a wonderful context for my education.
Once I arrived at A&T I decided to double major in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics Education. I felt that electrical engineering was for my father and teaching was for me.
Throughout my university experience I found that often I liked my engineering internships better than student teaching in a high school classroom. My dad thought I should switch majors, and almost every professor I came into contact with said I should switch from Math Education to Applied mathematics. Being stubborn, I refused to drop my mathematics education major.
It took me 100 hours of student teaching to realize that being a high school math teacher did not fit my personality. The students often told me I was too "nice." It didn't help that I did not look much older than them.
Realizing that I no longer wanted to be a math teacher I found myself struggling to determine what I liked enough in electrical engineering to turn it into a career. I found nothing until I went to Malawi, Africa, with the SMART PATH tutoring program. While in Malawi, I volunteered in primary schools, coordinated a reusable feminine pads program, and showed teachers how to use the Pathematics program. Through this volunteer experience I saw how the lack of power resources affected the students and the lives of the surrounding community. This gave me a purpose. I realized that with electrical engineering I could impact the lives of more people than if I was in a high school classroom.
Once I knew what I wanted to do with my career I needed to make a plan. After returning from Africa, I was faced with developing a career plan all over again. Suddenly I felt like I was 16 again. I was applying for internships and graduate schools all in the hopes that they would put me on the right track to a career in the power systems field and allow me to work with developing nations. This led me to work at Iowa State in the Wind Energy program for a summer, and then to Exxon for one semester. I learned a lot about the power industry, and plan to continue my studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the Industrial Engineering PhD program, funded by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. However, I felt a pull to continue to both travel and to learn about the ways engineering can best be applied to impact people’s lives. So I applied to the Mitchell Scholarship, deferred my PhD for one year, and am now studying Leadership for Sustainable Development in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
My path toward a future in engineering is not quite what I imagined as a sixteen-year-old applying to college. But everything I’ve experienced so far has made me grateful for what I’ve learned in and out of the classes, and for what this will bring me in my future. At first the infinite choices for college and career paths seem paralyzing, but the thing that I learned was that if you try out something and it does not work it is not the end of the world. The years I spent in my undergraduate career were some of the most memorable years to date. Before and during college I often felt lost. The thing that kept me going was that I was surrounded by other students who also felt lost. Something about being lost with a bunch of other people makes life a little easier.
Please share your thoughts, reflections, and questions in the comments section below! You might also be interested in previous blog posts on choosing a college, such as "Selecting a College: Sitting in on Classes," "Location," and "On Choosing a 'Useless' Major by Miles Raymer."