I was born of goodly parents. They instilled in me a belief that I could become anything I wanted in this world.
As I discuss in my profile, my dad played an important role in my deciding to become an engineer. This wasn’t because he was an engineer himself, because he was an educator by trade. Instead, he encouraged this path because he saw in me a desire to understand the world around me.
This is all to explain that I could not have had a better upbringing or more support than I had. However, it became clear within a few semesters of school, that I was at a disadvantage to many of my peers. Being the first in my family to pursue engineering (that I know of), I would often feel lost in lectures or conversations at school with those who had parents in the engineering or construction industries.
It would sometimes frustrate me that professors would assume that I knew what ‘design-build’, client-contractor relationships, or E.I.T (Engineer in Training) meant. It happened quite a bit and more often than I let on.
It can be almost directly related to my intro to Spanish class that I took in my studies. Having no Spanish training, experience or heritage, I was placed in the same class with students that grew up in a Spanish speaking home or that took the language in high school. Because they didn’t ‘speak’ it, they were assumed to be at the same level as I even though I had next to zero Hispanic exposure in my life to that point. I studied, practiced… and got a solid B.
In my engineering classes, I quickly learned that I couldn’t be shy in my ignorance. I would force myself ask questions from my engineering-reared counterparts, and would try and take advantage of professor office hours. I worked at learning the material as much as any other students and, academically, consistently stayed average or above.
If it sounds like I was the only one who didn’t have a parent or close relative that was in the engineering or construction field, I most definitely wasn’t. Not by a long shot. But where my friends were proactive in improving their engineering knowledge in an out of the books, I kind of shot myself in the foot.
I knew that getting an internship or job related to my career was important, but I guess not important enough. Most of my friends quickly found themselves part-time jobs working on campus with professors or as a low paid draftsman. I went for the pay and benefits in a delivery job until my senior year when I let it go and found an internship. That was one of the best decisions of my life.
So, in consideration of a single, self experienced case study, these are my keys for getting ‘street smart’ when you have no engineering background.
1. Don’t be ashamed
Ask questions about everything you don’t understand, even if it seems like everyone else does.
2. Meet the firms
Make a list of all of the prominent design and consulting firms in the area. Study this list and, if possible, try and make connections from some of these firms. You won’t regret it.
3. Try and get a paid internship
If you can’t, try and get a paid job related to what area you are concentrating in. If you can’t do either of these, and if your personal situation allows, offer to work for free, or at least minimum.
4. Find a mentor
If possible, find a licensed Professional Engineer to shadow and observe. Preferable at your job, but if not, most professors are great about you asking them questions after class or during their office hours.
5. Get involved
It is almost harder to not be actively involved in a local chapter of an engineering society than be involved. Still, I managed to somehow stay away from them. Many principles of design and computer software are learned when you work with a team on a project such as concrete canoe or steel bridge.
6. Meet Google
I will be honest; I had never been told what an abutment was when I graduated. In the first few months of my job following school, my boss asked me to do a quantity check on one. I was too ashamed to ask him, but Google didn’t mind. (An abutment is the end supports of a bridge, by the way) Google Books is also an ever-expanding resource for technical information.
7. Don’t get frustrated
Know that you can make it, regardless of background. Don’t let one confusing lecture or one bad test grade deter you. If you really want it, you have an advantage over anyone.