What would you say to female freshman engineering students?
August 19, 2015 10:35 PM   Subscribe

I am a young female engineering professor who was invited to speak to incoming freshman engineering girls at my uni. I am flattered and want to inspire and motivate these young students. I need suggestions on what to focus on. I thought it would be easy because there is so much advice I can give but when I sit down it seems too disconnected and jumbled. more info inside

Had considered encouraging them to find their confidence, get involved in extracurriculars to connect with like minded people and explore to pique interest, get to know your instructors and fellow students, strengthen often ignored team and interpersonal skills, touch on current #looklikeanengineer campaign, but these all seem trite even if they are true. What do you think I should focus on? What would you recommend telling girls starting studies in engineering? What would you tell your 18 year old self, especially if you were/are a female engineering student?. Male engineers, what advice do you have?
posted by dublin to Education (38 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
When I started studying computer science, I would have liked to know a lot more about how an undergraduate could get involved in the academic life of the department. How to approach professors for help, how to get involved in their research and projects, just generally how to put yourself out there as a serious student. That might not be female-specific, but man, I wish I had known that sort of thing at the time.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:48 PM on August 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

You have been asked to speak because you are a successful female in a traditionally male field. Talk about your experience as a female engineering student; your struggles, obstacles, accomplishments, lessons learned. Is there a boyzone? How did you deal with it? What do you wish someone would have told you when you were a freshman? Share those lessons through stories of your experiences to keep it interesting and engaging. Good luck!
posted by NoraCharles at 11:03 PM on August 19, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oooh I have THOUGHTS. Source: I am female, and was a first year engineering student 13 years ago.

There is some really interesting academic work in this space, some of it done by former profs of mine (Dr. Deb Chachra is a good one to google, and she is mefi's own debcha. I'm telling her on Twitter that I'm namechecking her here so perhaps she'll drop in to give her own advice). I don't disagree that it's good to strengthen team and interpersonal skills, but warn them of this possible side effect of doing so.

An interesting experiment someone did on me shortly before I left for college was to ask why I was going into engineering. I said, "because I'm good at math and science." Apparently, the vast majority of women in engineering say exactly the same thing. Men, if you ask them the same question, usually say it's because they like building things (or taking things apart). (Anecdotally, when all my profs introduced themselves at uni and talked about why they'd entered their fields, it broke down along these gender lines without exception) So what happens in first year math and physics engineering courses, extremely hard and usually designed to wash people out? The women who think they're in the field because they like those subjects say "Well, I guess I'm not as good at them as I thought. Might as well change majors." The men say "Screw this stuff, I just have to get through it until I can build things." I would have headed down this same path my first year except that (1) because someone had made me aware of this tendency to view your interest in engineering through this very gendered lens, I sat back and realized I was going into engineering because I DID love building things (specifically, robots), and I was able to slog through the coursework and know I could look forward to building cool stuff, and (2) I attended a college that focuses on project-based learning early and often so I got to build cool stuff at the same time I was suffering through vector calculus and that helped focus me on what engineering actually was. It's probably not within your power to unilaterally change curricula for these students, but knowledge is power - make them aware of the way these gendered thought processes can go, and give them a safe space to talk it out with professors, more senior students, or others in a position to advise them.

Generally, I think empowering them to talk to professors, TAs, etc about sexist or gendered things in the classroom is really important. I had one (female) friend paired with a (male) friend for a lab course, and they noticed after a while that the prof always looked at and directed his words to the male half of the pair whenever he talked to them, even if it was the woman who asked a question. So they called him out on it, and he, being a good feminist ally, accepted the feedback and made extra effort to make sure he was treating male and female students the same, addressing them the same way, etc. If students don't feel they can tell professors things like this -- and if professors aren't prepared to accept that kind of feedback -- it can make for a frustrating and hostile environment.

I wouldn't pressure anyone to join SWE or anything similar on campus. I am a militantly feminist engineer, but I hated my SWE experience. Everyone's mileage will vary, but it's not a guaranteed way to make life better for female students. Make them aware of what affinity groups are available to them, but I wouldn't pressure them to be part of any particular one or even, for that matter, to identify as A Girl In Engineering. Some of them just want to be one of the guys. That's okay.

My college now runs a Gender and Engineering discussion group on a regular basis (think it's headed up by debcha, actually). I appreciate that it's not called the "women in engineering" discussion group, and that they make an effort to involve male students and faculty if they're interested -- though it is dominated by women, unsurprisingly. Some other alumna and I have been to a couple, and it becomes really easy to "scare" the students with anecdotes about the sexism we encounter in our careers, to the point that we can almost really discourage them, but the conversation always ends on a high note because we effing love what we do. It makes it worth it. So as much as you and other advisers can convey that this is an awesome cool exciting field to be in, do it!
posted by olinerd at 11:09 PM on August 19, 2015 [45 favorites]

Tell them to make sure they get their hands on the kit in lab sessions. My SO did some work which suggested male UGs were more likely to do the hands on stuff while female UGs recorded the data.
posted by biffa at 11:51 PM on August 19, 2015 [12 favorites]

Continuing in the same vein as olinerd, it's really important to keep your eyes on the prize of becoming an engineer (and not a research professor for most of them even though their mentors for the next few years will probably be research professors). That means seeking out internships, co-ops, and extracurriculars that actively involve design and build. Bonus- this makes coursework infinitely more relevant and interesting. That's what i wish someone had told me.

(I had no idea that "good at math and science" thing was gendered! So strange but matches with my experience as well. )
posted by Gravel at 12:10 AM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

+1 to getting their hands on the kit during lab sessions - I remember as a second-year student being left to write the data because they guys had grabbed the tools and started. Also, ask lots of questions, don't worry about people thinking that you might be dumb. Try to connect the disparate bits of your course together rather than treating each subject as separate.

Find out what support is available to you if you're sexually harassed (on campus and in the workplace) BEFORE it happens.

Also, there are more careers open to you with an engineering degree than just being an engineer. This is good to know on the days when the classes are getting you down.

Seek out the women academics in your faculty.

Lots of engineering faculties have a very macho culture. Don't feel you have to adopt it to get by. You don't have to drink like a bloke, swear like a bloke, act tough like a bloke.

Make some friends who are aren't taking your course.

If you have to choose between opportunities, whether this is a vacation job, an internship, a research opportunity, choose the one that excites you, not the one that everyone else thinks is prestigious.
posted by girlgenius at 12:11 AM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am not in your field, but what I wish I had known is how important it is to support other female students/coworkers. To listen to what they say, comment on what they said. Not eschew other women to be one of the boys, but to build each other up.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:14 AM on August 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

I am a woman that majored in TWO seperate male dominated fields a million years ago, both are very popular and visible today in the media. I'm so annoyed to see stereotypes from 25+ years ago still regularly portrayed popularly.

I don't know how you can cleverly get this across without just saying it - but geezus - tell them not to fall into the trap of appearing "f&ckable" to establish themselves. Ditto please tell these women they should not concern themselves with a working environment that encourages them to compete amongst themselves for male/authority approval. They can find or create other career opportunities.

Gosh. I wish I did not have to just type that out.

I fell for some (most?) of that crap when I was younger.

I'm pretty sure you are not allowed to talk about that kind of bias and culture outright, but I wish you were allowed. It sucked being made to feel like my ultimate competition in either industry was "the other pretty young girl" instead of feeling like my competition was with myself and to be better at my chosen professional role every day.

PS. Now I own my own business in one of those careers I studied. I have a better handle now on the whole gender thing and only work with clients and employees who share the same desire for excellence. I can control who we serve. I'm not sure if I worked for someone else if it would be similarly rewarding, and that's why I became an employer instead of an employee. YMMV.
posted by jbenben at 12:26 AM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

As a CS undergrad, it took me a long time to find out that (in my experience then, always male) confidence, use of jargon, swagger, and keyboard grabbing are not correlated with how well students are doing, and I let myself be impressed and ready to step aside for too long. Seconding that it's important to get hands-on experience and not let yourself be relegated to performing emotional labor for the team or documenting. Take that space.
posted by meijusa at 1:42 AM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

. you can only blame yourself for not spending enough time in the library with your books.

But of course, time with a study group, in a TA help session or in class are likely to be more useful than an extra three hours in the library. Tell them not to imagine that they should be getting through the work on their own, they should be using all the available resources to help them learn.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 1:42 AM on August 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

Seconding the above. As general engineering student advice, it's good. Engineering is a team sport. Unless explicitly told otherwise on an assignment, get it done in a group!
posted by olinerd at 2:57 AM on August 20, 2015

Band together. Formally or informally, work with other women in your major and your field, and with women in all other fields. Join or start all-woman study groups. It doesn't have to be official and you don't have to wear a uniform or badge identifying you as a Woman Engineer, but stick together for mutual support and so on.

And while you're still studying, even if you don't really have a product idea yet, start a company just to get comfortable with starting and running companies. By the time you graduate, be able to say that you started and ran a company that is developing (even if it's mainly scheming and not making or selling) something that you love and want to create. Or you sold such a company for a profit and started another.

You can go to work for some other giant corporation and still have your own one-woman corporation on the side until you figure out exactly what you're going to make and sell on your own. And when it's time to focus on your own business, find brilliant women to hire. You can start and run a company that does stuff you really know relatively little about if you are a good organizer and hire the right people.
posted by pracowity at 3:00 AM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

As a former math and hard science female undergrad, the one thing I wish I had back then was someone like you-- a young female role model for success. The one thing I wish I'd known was Carol Dweck's theories of mindset. I haven't read her new book, but the chapter about her work in NurtureShock made me slightly sick to my stomach as a former female hard-scientist who dropped out of grad school for a lot of the reasons she talks about. It can be very challenging to go from being the "smart kid" in a smaller pond to someone who struggles in a more challenging environment, and knowing how to handle that with a growth mindset can be the difference between giving up and digging in. I'm pretty sure that research has shown that female engineering, math, and science students are one of the most vulnerable demographics for this problem. It is so very easy to hit your first college weed out class in math or engineering and think, oh, crap, I guess I'm not cut out for this after all. The absolute best gift you can give students is the awareness of the issue and tools to deal with it. I haven't watched Dweck's Ted talk, but that might be worth checking out before your meeting. If you only have three minutes, not fifteen, here are a few quotes from her work that give a flavor of her approach.
posted by instamatic at 3:15 AM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Here is a very readable paper [PDF] that discusses Dweck's work on growth mindset with respect to female undergrads in math and science. (Sheesh, I feel like past-me is reaching out through time and the Internet to grab you by the collar and beg you to help female engineering/math/science undergrads understand this.)
posted by instamatic at 3:25 AM on August 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

i would tell them not to get intimidated by guys who brag or try to show off as though they get the material better or are more talented or knowledgeable than others, because it's a big act and they're probably doing worse than the women. In a higher level hard science course I took once over the summer at a nearby university (with my best friend), a few guys always pretended they were geniuses, but it was just an act. They were barely pulling C's and were just pretending to have an intuitive grasp of it, pretending they didn't have to study. Meanwhile, my best friend and I were commiserating how challenging it was and how much time we were spending studying and preparing for lecture and how lost we felt. We expressed this to our TA, because we thought maybe we ought to withdraw since it seemed like all these guys were getting it, not putting in much time on problem sets, and seeming pretty pleased with themselves. The TA started laughing and told us the guys who were taking up all the oxygen in the room talking to death like they knew everything were pulling C's and it was a second go around for one of the guys who had previously failed the course the semester before and had to retake. We were doing better than the know-it-alls.

That helped us so, so much. Otherwise, we thought the amount of work and effort we were putting in meant we were dumb or not meant for the course because the guys acted like they owned the course. But they were faking confidence and faking doing well and mansplaining the concepts, and we didn't realize that they were not as smart as they wanted others to think they were.
posted by discopolo at 4:44 AM on August 20, 2015 [11 favorites]

Earlier this year: "I wanted to start with this quote because it just - ugh..."; Mansplaining 101: Cisadmin Edition. Marni Cohen made a list of advice from women in tech here. Worth reading.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:58 AM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Calculus, chemistry, and physics are gender neutral. You cannot blame "the patriarchy" for your inability to do trigonometric substitution; you can only blame yourself for not spending enough time in the library with your books.

Of course, these subjects have a long history of being taught, studied, and presented by men, who are, of course, not gender neutral, although some like to wrap themselves in a cloak of gender impartiality to deflect criticisms of their research, teaching, and behaviors. Not sure there is room in your presentation for some advice to incoming students how to separate this kind of feeble excuse from the actual difficulties* of the material Older male professors will all too often fall back on dodges like the one above rather than reframe their understanding in a way that makes sense to a particular student (male or female, but women often get it worse here because sexism). It's a worthwhile skill for students to recognize when the problem is their grasp of the material as opposed to the professor's inability to accurately convey that. Blaming yourself for the professor's failure is a dead end; seeking help from alternative venues (fellow students, other faculty, tutors, etc) is usually a better way to build comprehension.

* I prefer "intricacies," myself -- the problem is usually not so much understanding a single given concept but integrating that concept into the student's growing conception of their discipline and getting the tools implied by that concept into the student's "metal toolbox" for problem solving rather than some inherent "difficulty" in the material.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:01 AM on August 20, 2015 [10 favorites]

Also, I'm a STEM librarian, and, assuming your institution has decent librarians, it's not a bad idea to remind students that they can always talk to the librarians, who mostly are there to show how to effectively do literature searches, but who often know a lot about the university and can direct students to helpful services (math tutors, for example, or help with time management or emotional stress). Universities have a lot of services that students seem to be ignorant of, and librarians (and often advisers or student life staff) can help students find help for a wide variety of problems, and all of these people are used to being asked questions, and, believe me, no matter how stupid you think your question is, I guarantee you that librarians, advisers, and student life staff have heard way worse. Making efficient use of the resources on offer is just another aspect of learning to be a good engineer, I think (and engineers in general are really bad about asking necessary questions, so not learning that habit is also helpful).
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:09 AM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Start them thinking about their careers. The single most important piece of advice to give them is that salary can be negotiated. Encourage the women not to undervalue themselves or their skills. Emphasize the value of female mentorship for career development and professional growth. Their future pay packets will thank you.
posted by crazycanuck at 5:27 AM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used to do something like this with first-year ROTC cadets, and this is what I did (more or less):

"Raise your hand if you were the valedictorian or salutatorian of your high school class. Keep them up. Raise your hand if you got over 2000 on your SATs. Keep them up. Raise your hand if you lettered in at least one varsity sport. Keep them up. Raise your hand if you were president of at least two school clubs. Keep them up. Raise your hand if your picture appeared in your local paper. Now look around."

(Of course, every hand in the room is up at this point.)

"You got here because you're smart, you're in shape, you're a leader. So. Did. Everyone. Else. And all of that probably came pretty easy to you. High school wasn't difficult, was it? Sure, there were parts that you were better at than others, but let's face it, you could mostly coast through everything and get A's. You've been the smartest person in the room your whole life. Every person in this room, and every person in each of your classes, was the smartest person in the room their whole life too. Now is when you have to work. If you coast, you will fail. Not get a B-plus, not have to cram a little more to ace the final. Fail. In high school, everyone wants you to succeed. In college, everyone wants you to learn how to succeed. There is a difference."
posted by Etrigan at 5:37 AM on August 20, 2015 [11 favorites]

If you know what you want to tell them, one useful framing device to organize your thoughts might be your own development as an engineer. Real lived experience counts for a lot.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:18 AM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Looking back, the biggest thing I didn't realize (which now seems to obvious but doesn't click automatically for an 18 year old) was that what is really happening in engineering school is to lay the foundations for a lifetime of learning. This is really only the beginning of their education. They are learning how to learn engineering. I think if that realization sunk in sooner for me, I would have approached my studies and had a very different experience in the early years of undergraduate school- focusing on developing my abilities rather than merely arriving at the right answer.
posted by incolorinred at 6:21 AM on August 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

I would tell them that a career in engineering is like having an 8 o'clock class and a late lab every working day of your life. I would tell them that the STEM crisis is a myth put forth by the two groups who benefit from a surplus of engineers: CEOs and college professors. I would tell them don't expect to get rich from engineering. I would tell them who they know is more important than what they know. I would tell them to make friends in their classes because it is those people who will help them get a job.
posted by Rob Rockets at 6:35 AM on August 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

You guys! Thanks for giving me feedback!!! All of the comments are SO valuable and helpful ... and it's charging me up about why I came to academia to begin with after working in industry... to teach, yes, but also to represent a female in a leadership role to both male and female students alike - please continue to weigh in!
posted by dublin at 6:49 AM on August 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

I am a young, female professor in a different field who usually gives a similar talk at the start of the school year. So, I can't speak to the substance but I can offer two (field-neutral) cents about feeling like your thoughts are "disconnected and jumbled."

This is how I used to feel and, in my experience, in the first weeks of the semester, many students are feeling the same way--they are getting a lot of new information thrown at them, in different settings, over a number of weeks, and their memory retention can be pretty low. A couple of years ago, I finally felt like my talk was a little less jumbled when I restructured it around five or six major categories/takeaways (things like Get Involved, Be Yourself, Speak Up, etc.) into which I fit all the anecdotes and advice. I've found that this makes me feel more directed and they remember more (after I started doing this, I heard from students who later said, "I remember that on the first day you said X..." which hadn't happened before).

Good for you for encouraging your new students in this way. Good luck!
posted by trixie119 at 7:09 AM on August 20, 2015

I would suggest:
1.) Speak up if you're being mistreated or sidelined, these are your classes, labs, too.
2.) The World needs more engineers, especially from more diverse backgrounds.

Engineering freshman two decades ago, now a manager of an engineering team.
posted by nickggully at 9:04 AM on August 20, 2015

In your place, I would be worried that all the advice about being a girl in a man's field was redundant to what they have heard from everybody all the time. Which is not to say that is not a good and necessary message, or that you should stay away from that theme, but that perhaps you want to be original in your presentation.

A story is always good. Stories hold attention. I can't tell whose story would be good. It could be your story, or classmate's or a student's.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:23 AM on August 20, 2015

Building off of Etrigan's point with a slight variation...

I'm a woman in physics/astronomy, I didn't reach the point where it was even realistically possible for me to fail until graduate school, and goddamn, did I hit a brick wall.

What I wish that I had known: it is okay to fail. It doesn't mean that you're not "meant" to be an engineer or physicist or whatever. In fact, it is more than okay to fail, it is important to fail. You should be pushing yourself and putting yourself out there and trying difficult things. If you're failing now and then, that means that you're working in the zone that you should be in. Practice failing, and practice picking yourself up afterwards and going on.

I wish that I had practiced failing all through undergrad by trying really ambitious stuff rather than staying in my comfort zone; I would have been much better prepared for grad school and for my career.

If you have stories about when you failed, and then were able to learn from that experience and go on to succeed, tell them! I find those kinds of stories, especially from women, super inspiring, even now that I'm supposedly a grown-up.
posted by BrashTech at 9:27 AM on August 20, 2015 [14 favorites]

In your place, I would be worried that all the advice about being a girl in a man's field was redundant to what they have heard from everybody all the time

This is a valid concern, but research seems to be on the side of 1) discussing these things in the open and 2) becoming comfortable with "growth" models of intelligence and failure. The more women believe that intelligence is static, the more likely they are to drop out once they encounter difficulty. (They are also more affected by stereotypes in their field.)

I totally get why you wouldn't want to repeat what they've heard a million times before, but it actually is extremely important for girls to hear this stuff (and not just It's Hard and Girl Power, but these very real mental models and strategies for success).
posted by easter queen at 9:39 AM on August 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

As a not-female engineer, the advice that I would have found most useful is basically what three blind mice and the agents of KAOS said above about doing the homework and doing it with your peers.

- It is very easy (I know first hand) to skate through high school without doing the homework, and in freshman year of uni it feels like you maybe still can, but there is a big gap between understanding the lecture and being able to apply that in the exam. Unless you are super brilliant you will need practice (homework)

- Also for group work, starting now is a good time to find the people you know you can work with, and how to work with them. Group projects will happen, better be prepared for it.

- Nothing helps you understand a concept like explaining it to someone else, like someone else in your homework group.
posted by selenized at 9:45 AM on August 20, 2015

[A few comments deleted. As always, AskMe isn't really a space for back-and-forth debate or discussion; you've offered answers and OP can decide which suggestions are most useful for her purposes. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:32 AM on August 20, 2015

This is a lot of repeating what others have said, but I wanted to put in my two cents because I've worked on this stuff in a professional capacity (though I am obviously not answering this question in a professional capacity): my last job before my current one was researching and developing programs that address the reasons for women's underrepresentation in STEM fields, with a focus on engineering and technology subfields in particular.

-Tell stories - this is the big one - people tend to think in narrative format so your advice is going to be absorbed the best if you do this. Tell the story of how you got into engineering. What made you love it? Who encouraged you? What setbacks did you encounter and what got you through them? How did your engineering interests change over time? When did you fail, and what did you learn from failure? When did you take big risks and succeed? What was the most fun day you've ever had in your current role as a professor, or in earlier jobs or research internships you took on? What was the worst?

-Encourage them to have a growth mindset. Basically, intelligence/IQ/skillset, whatever you want to call it, is not fixed. Tell them: if you are struggling with these concepts now, it's not because you are bad at them, it's because you aren't good at them...yet. Sheer persistence is the best way to overcome that initial feeling of "hitting a wall". I see the above comment that this might be "boring", but the thing is, it is not common knowledge. I personally did not know that intelligence was malleable until I started working at that job.

-Talk to them about the actual content of the research projects you work on. A lot of the problems with engineering curricula is that there isn't enough applied-skills content and so students kind of get bored and check out--I'm sure you remember this in some of your own undergraduate classes! They want to hear about how those engineering classes led you to do really cool, fun things. This is especially valuable if you do research in a traditionally considered "low-skill" engineering subfield, like mechanical or electrical engineering. Even by the time they are first-year engineers in university programs, a lot of people still have no idea that these particular fields are creative, interesting, collaborative, beneficial to society, and so on.

-Like you said, encourage them to reach out to others and find a community, build study groups, join a local Maker space, etc. so that they have a strong support network and can feel that they're not alone when in the toughest moments of their careers.
posted by capricorn at 10:32 AM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I was a theoretical math major 15 years ago at a major research university. I have a master's degree in statistics. I now work with a variety of (almost all male) engineers and physicists.

Do not assume that others (especially men) know more than you or understand the material better because of what they say or how they act. How I wish I had understood this as an undergrad. Often the guy who uses lots of jargon and asks seemingly impressive questions during class or trivializes a difficult homework problem is putting on a show to hide his own insecurities and struggles. Seriously, sometimes these are the people actually doing the worst in the class. (Also, this does not stop once you enter the workforce, so it is a good idea to practice the self-talk to deal with it during school. After many, many years of practice, I now routinely call people out on this kind of thing by pressing until either I understand or it becomes clear that they were just bluffing: "What do you mean by [fieldjargonword]?", "So how exactly would you implement step 2 of that algorithm?", "You dismissed [cornercase] as easy to deal with later, but let's talk briefly about it now to make sure that we aren't putting anything into the design that makes it difficult to deal with later.")

Do not assume that a professor's socially awkward behavior means that they do not want to help you. I was convinced that my several of my undergraduate professors hated me or thought I was stupid every time I went to office hours, so I stopped going after a while. In hindsight, I think they were just socially awkward.

Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask questions. Ask the professor during class or during office hours. Ask other students after class or during study sessions. Googling is not a substitute for asking another human. When I decided to leave a PhD statistics program after a year, the smartest guy in my cohort said that he was sad I was leaving because he wasn't sure who would ask all the questions during their classes anymore. If you have a questions, other people have the same question.
posted by zanybutterfly at 10:39 AM on August 20, 2015 [9 favorites]

When I was a freshman engineering student one of my biggest challenges was coming to terms with the sudden overwhelming freedom to follow my interests and balancing that with the need to stay on track to graduate on time. The idea a fifth year or more of study, in college, could be a strategy and not a failure was alien; engineering was about hyper-focus and learning as many techy things as possible, right? Self-care and multidimensional curiosity were things people mentioned as important but I didn't understand how to make time for them or even how to identify them in my own life.

So, from my own experience in your target audience, I'd suggest including something like the importance of scheduling time to explore other interests. I'd also include information on how to find grants and funding to set up their own engineering projects which involve those interests, or at least how to find workspace and materials on campus.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 5:43 PM on August 20, 2015

I would suggest telling them about imposter syndrome, and that feeling overwhelmed, out of your depth, and inadequate is something that happens to everyone [except perhaps arrogant jerks], and doesn't mean they suck, and shouldn't be engineers. Pick whatever highly-respected, knowledgeable person you like - they felt like that once.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:17 PM on August 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

I just remembered the big write-up on Terry Tao that made the rounds recently deals a lot with what it's like to be "gifted" and then have a bit of a breakdown because you feel out of your depth-- I think it covers the whole genius gene/myth stuff, impostor syndrome, a take on growth intelligence, etc. Might be helpful.
posted by easter queen at 6:54 AM on August 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

It also says he moves his hands "like a magician" and a bunch of other woo stuff so I'm not sure how it comes out on balance.
posted by easter queen at 8:50 AM on August 21, 2015

I would make sure the students have access to future resources if they need them.

Here I'm thinking primarily of university/department ombudsmen, because that's the resource I needed (and delayed going to more than a year because I didn't know where to go/whom to talk to).

But there's all sorts of other resources a university might have- study skills workshops, support for first-generation college students, disability resource centers, ESL support, etc. There might be a SWE group. Or counseling services for students who undergo tragedy while enrolled, or services to support re-enrollment after medical leave.
If there's a website that lists all of this support, and especially places to go in the event something happens where they need support, then you should pass it on to the students. If there isn't such a site, well, why the heck not?

To me, I see it as normalizing the need for support. Everyone may have a reason that they need support, help most likely *is* available for whatever problem they've encountered, it's just a matter of knowing it's there and finding the right place to ask.

(Of course there are stories of universities having variously fucked up support services, so your mileage may vary; but be it other students or official university support, students don't have to weather their personal difficulties alone).
posted by nat at 1:35 PM on August 22, 2015

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