Mechanical engineer, professor, and Engineer’s Playground blogger, Yvonne Ng offers her younger self some advice on confidence, finding the right friends and bosses, and how to attain balance.
Writing to you from a vantage point well over 25 years from your 16, I have only a few pieces of advice for the woman engineer you will become.
You already are prepared to work hard. With parents like yours (in 2011, they will be called Tiger Parents), you know that hard work counts more than talent. Engineering at Princeton will be one of the greatest challenges you will face, but you will emerge with a set of skills—technical, communication and organizational—under your belt.
You already know that engineering will open up avenues of opportunity to help people.
You are already aware that boys significantly outnumber the girls in your classes. You will have already seen this in mathematics classes and at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Sciences. But you seem to like boys’ directness more than girls’ double-talk, so being surrounded by men in engineering classes will not be difficult. However, keep reaching out to other women who share your passions about technical things. The women you meet in college—your roommates and those you commiserate with in the women’s bathroom—will be your best friends throughout life.
You already know that engineering will open up avenues of opportunity to help people. You will choose mechanical engineering because of your interest in improving prosthetics (yes, that project you and Dad did with the ski boot buckles will have lasting effects on you), but right now, you have no idea of the opportunities mechanical engineering will offer. Remember the Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers videos you loved—how crayons were made, where milk travels, and how saxophones were manufactured? Your interest in prosthetics will lead you to help people in so many different industries—from microwave popcorn to printing to rubber mixers. Don’t believe the professors who think you don’t have what it takes. Not only will you enjoy the work, companies will love having you on their teams. In some ways, you will get more satisfaction from working as an engineer than studying to be one.
So what advice can I give you? Maintain balance—the kind Chinese describe as “opposites complementing each other into a harmonious whole.” Learning tai chi, you will learn to cultivate the yin and the yang. Your teacher will tell you to relax because you tend to be tense. (If you were relaxed, she would tell you to tense up!) One is not better than the other; both need to be developed for balance.
The most immediate things to balance will be:
Liberal arts and engineering: The hardest problems you will tackle as an engineer won’t be technical. Your challenges will be dealing with people, so don’t feel guilty for taking women’s history, Chinese politics, or children’s literature. Each course will give you insight into the human condition—often the real problem behind an engineering project.
Work and play: Play—whether a home project, a trip to the lake, or a bicycle ride—is the way you re-energize your mind. Believe it or not, you will work better when you take time to play more. This is going to be one of your hardest lessons.
Friends and colleagues: Working well with colleagues is important but remember to nurture friendships unrelated to work. Research reports will show that best friends are important to a woman’s health. You certainly will feel poorly when you don’t have them.
Love and passion: Passion for your work will come easily. In fact, when you make order of the chaos, you will switch jobs so you can tackle the next interesting problem. This is great, but remember to take time for those you love. Your family wants to support you but can’t if you don’t stay connected—so go home when you can, and call otherwise. Your boyfriend (who will become your husband)—will support you in so many ways, but only if you nurture the relationship.
So be proactive in finding balance.
This means realizing that you choose who will benefit from your talents. You will go to interviews where employers assume you can’t do the work (believe it or not, it will be because of your leg, not your brain!). You will work with those who assume you will go along with whatever they say (and will be upset when you are NOT the meek Chinese woman they assumed you were). Studies will show that you are not the only woman to experience this.
You must be proactive—it is worth the time to find a boss that appreciates you, who has the utmost belief in your ability, and who will be “the boss” and have your back. Pick someone who deserves it and leave the ones who don’t.
I hope this advice will help you manage the trials that are ahead. Remember, you can tackle them, just make sure you preserve the best parts of yourself in the process.
Yvonne Ng obtained her mechanical and aerospace engineering degree from Princeton, and a master’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Minnesota. She is currently an assistant professor of computer science and engineering and chair of Center for Women, Science and Technology at St. Catherine’s University.