Engineering Alumni Stress ‘Courage, Confidence, and Grit’ in Navigating Careers
“Careers are long. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
That’s what Susan Flanagan ’84, advised a room full of Columbia Engineering students and alumni at a networking event hosted by the Columbia chapters of the Society of Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers, and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
The evening was a celebration of diversity and networking featuring a panel with Flanagan and fellow alums Chelsey Roebuck ’10, and Nathalie Torres ’07.
Dean Mary C. Boyce, who moderated the panel, opened the Feb. 23 event with words of encouragement for current students. Engineering has become a “foundational degree” that “drives every field,” she said. She lauded the importance of engineering to social progress and the field’s growing diversity, both in the professional world and at Columbia Engineering, where 47 percent of the undergraduate class of 2020 is female and 33 percent is underrepresented minorities, up 3 percent from the year before.
“As we move to a more knowledge-based economy, engineering can bring more equality to the workplace,” Boyce said. “Engineering can be an equalizer for everyone as long as we can bring everyone to education.”
The group of panelists echoed the important role a strong engineering education played in their diverse career paths. Though working in a different fields, they all found that courage, being flexible, and using their support systems were invaluable elements in their career growth.
Flanagan shared how her professional trajectory started in aerospace engineering before she joined General Electric and worked her way up to her current role as managing director of the Energy Global Markets Group. As one of the few women in her workplace at the time, she related that being an engineer among other engineers gave her built-in respect among colleagues and the confidence to tackle challenges by breaking them into parts and working through them in a systematic way.
Flanagan, who studied mechanical engineering at Columbia, faced a turning point in her career when she was approached by GE to go to China. At first, she had no interest. “That’s not New York,” she quipped. After giving the matter more thought, she decided the risk of losing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was greater than any trepidations she had over such a dramatic life change.
The courageous decision ended up being one of the high points of Flanagan’s career to date, and her nine-month post turned into a year spent in China.
“I loved it,” Flanagan said. “I learned so much about myself and about other people.”
The experience also brought home the value of diversity. “Interacting with different people helped me learn so much more. We’re able to get to better solutions because we have so many different people involved.”
Flanagan also wanted students to know that it was okay not to have a firm career plan upon graduation. “If you veer in the wrong direction, you can always veer back,” she said.
Nathalie Torres, director of data at Inamoto & Co., seconded Flanagan’s open approach. As the first member of her family to attend college, Torres said that she had no idea what to expect once she graduated. She took advantage of the Center for Career Education for help in writing her resume and refining her presentation skills.
Drawn to the idea of using her degree in mechanical engineering in a more creative environment, Torres went on to take jobs at some of the biggest marketing and digital media agencies in the world, including Digitas and AKQA, and helped to build their digital practices. When a colleague decided to start his own digital agency and wanted Torres to come onboard, she was both flattered and nervous to leave an established setting for a startup. Torres relied on her network to help her make the right decision.
“There was a lot of reflection and self-doubt,” she said. “I talked to the people I draw support from to help.”
Like Flanagan, she ultimately decided not let fear hold her back. “You have to know it and own it and walk into it,” Torres said. “Now, I love going to work every day.”
Chelsey Roebuck, who also studied mechanical engineering, expressed similar sentiments.
“It comes down to courage, confidence, and grit,” he said. “Uncertainty is okay if you are willing to put in the work to figure it out.”
Roebuck took an entrepreneurial path after graduating in 2010. A school trip to Ghana as an undergraduate inspired him to help improve the educational and economic prospects for underserved populations through education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). He co-founded ELiTE (Emerging Leaders in Technology and Engineering), an organization that brings STEM and computer science programs to low-opportunity students and has already touched the lives of thousands of children in New York City, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America.
Roebuck, who was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for education in 2016, encouraged students to make the most of their Columbia network and their affinity groups, and to take responsibility for nurturing and maintaining those relationships.
“If you’re here tonight, you are qualified for anything if you work hard enough,” he said. “What you need is access.”
He counseled attending the annual conferences put on by affinity groups and being prepared to meet recruiters with a resume and a short pitch. “Recruiters are attending those conferences looking to meet you,” he said.
Hearing the first-hand experiences of alumni resonated with the audience.
“I appreciate hearing personal stories,” said Haixing Li, a PhD student in Applied Physics and Applied Math from China who is considering a career in academia. “You remember stories, and it’s much more inspiring.”
Columbia Engineering offers many opportunities for students to connect with alumni throughout the year, as well as resources for job searches, resume help, and interview preparation. Students can also find networking and development opportunities through affinity groups and other student organizations.
—by Allison Elliott