Shelby Paschal Spence 2017-06-28 00:45:05
Why Not? I come from a very small town and a very small high school. When I was growing up, I didn’t know any engineers. In fact, I didn’t know what an engineer was until I got matched with engineering on an aptitude test! And, of course, I’m a woman. My gender didn’t affect me as much as it did my predecessors, but I often find that I can use my education, and being a young woman, to encourage younger women in their studies. I’m still learning, but I know that people from all walks of life have much to contribute, not just those from big cities or from more education-progressive areas than where my roots are. I learn something new every day, especially from my wonderful coworkers. And being a part of ASABE is a foothold for growing into engineering. Where does someone’s career start? Is it the first job interview? Or is it the first college class that leads to a major? Maybe it’s the first staff meeting on the job. For me, my career in engineering began the day that I opted out of my high school gym class to take an aptitude test. That was the day I learned that I could be an engineer. In my little town, a wonderful community surrounded me as I was growing up. However, there was not a single job in that community that I could see myself doing, not one job that I wanted. I loved being outside, but not farming. I was great with math and chemistry, but I didn’t have the patience to be a teacher. That aptitude test told me that I could be something different, something that I hadn’t even known about—I had to look up “engineer” in the dictionary. That aptitude test also told me that I could do something challenging, maybe even meaningful. All I could think was, “Why not?” Now, obviously, my career is still in its beginning stages. I’m so new that I barely fit under the umbrella of young professional. I’m also aware that engineering is not for everyone, and that it sounds a little weird to consider entering a difficult technical field just because a piece of paper tells you that you can do it. But engineering was not an idle choice for this small town girl. It was an opportunity to see what I was made of, a chance to see if I could do more than expected—even more than I expected from myself. And it worked, even though it was a long process. People around me may have thought that I was biting off more than I could chew—a sophomore in high school going around saying she was going to be an engineer one day! But what started as an excuse to skip gym turned into research on what an engineering career would look like, what scholarships I would need, even what classes I could take to prepare. In high school, I was the only student who signed up for AP biology, and I’m grateful to the teacher who agreed to tutor me one-on-one, rather than cancel the class. For my senior summer, I attended the Engineering Scholars Program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to find out what it was like to be a student in an engineering program. With each milestone, with each taste of what engineering might be like, my “Why not?” grew into a “Maybe” and eventually into a much more confident “This is possible!” Six years and a full scholarship later, that “Why not?” has been one of the most valuable questions of my life. I got my degree in biological and agricultural engineering from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (UARK) in May 2015, graduating at the top of my class and addressing my fellow students at commencement. However, long before I gave the commencement address, I was a scared calculator-wielding freshman who could get lost on the way to chemistry lab on any given day. I was afraid of losing my scholarship, afraid of making a mistake that would send me down a career path that I would hate, and afraid that I would never make any friends. And then I walked by a cookout and smelled hamburgers. At UARK, budding engineers are encouraged to explore all the disciplines within the field before declaring a major. This process includes dipping your toes into on-going projects, attending discipline-specific lectures, meeting alumni from each program, and talking with faculty and staff to see where you might fit. When I was walking by the engineering building, and I suddenly smelled hamburgers on the grill and heard laughter, I figured “Why not?” and joined in. It was the biological engineering (BENG) program’s annual welcome picnic. I met my future undergraduate advisors, my future boss, and I had a pretty decent hamburger. On further inspection of the department and its course catalog, I was sold. BENG seemed like the place for me. And it was. I learned more in those classes than I can even acknowledge, and I loved (almost) every minute of it. In addition to my studies and with the encouragement of advisers, I landed an internship at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. There I had the opportunity to work with leading experts in water quality, watershed analysis, and statistical evaluations of water data, and I was offered the bonus opportunity to intern for two labs instead of one. You might be able to guess what I said—“Why not?” Why not take on more? I was there to learn! Extra work meant extra experience, new opportunities meant new questions to ask, and a second lab meant more coworkers from whom I could learn, and who later became professional connections. All of this happened because someone was shorthanded and decided to take a chance on me. In my career, people take a chance on me every day. Currently, I’m a consulting environmental engineer for GBMc & Associates in central Arkansas. We’re a smaller firm, and we employ engineers and scientists with the goal of providing strategic environmental solutions for clients across the country. I work with people from amazing professional backgrounds, who collectively have decades of permitting, industry, regulatory, design, and modeling experience. One of the first things I noticed about the people at GBMc & Associates is that they value experiences, and they never miss an opportunity to learn something new. That can mean learning from a training seminar, from a previous assignment, or maybe a new project that someone has been pouring time and energy into. It’s the kind of place where experiences are shared and discussions are open conversations, with young colleagues encouraged to participate. Stories get told, and staff meetings often pause for a moment to share something interesting, or something that will be useful in the future. These are experiences that I would be missing if GBMc & Associates hadn’t taken a chance by hiring a fresh new BENG graduate, thereby providing me with my first real job. What I’m trying to say is this: If you’re a young professional, don’t be afraid to embrace the unknown—the “Why not?”—because there is so much out there to see and do and learn. If you’re a more seasoned engineer, or maybe a boss or a supervisor, do your best to be the person who not only allows growth but also encourages it in others. You are the model of what young professionals will be when the “young” gets dropped off. And if you’re in industry or looking to hire a new engineer, take a chance on that small-town girl (or bigcity guy) who isn’t afraid to ask “Why not?” We’ll all be the better for it. ASABE member Shelby Paschal Spence, E.I., Environmental Engineer, GBMc & Associates, Bryant, Ark., USA, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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