By Juliana Palomino
“Through this organization, I gain confidence from knowing that I have an enormous support network. We’re all encouraging each other to be the best that we can be.”
These words from civil engineering senior Abby Burke summarize the heart behind the University of Kentucky student chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. Begun in 1950, this international not-for-profit promotes the value of diversity by encouraging and enabling women’s full potential as engineers and leaders.
“SWE reaches out to girls and connects them to a network that will support them in their college career and beyond,” says Amna Al-Jumaily, a chemical engineering senior and president of the UK SWE chapter. “We focus on the three pillars of belongingness, professional development and outreach. We want to have an impact both on and off of campus.”
Off campus, UK SWE works to educate young girls about the possibilities open to them in STEM fields. Members volunteer in the William Wells Brown After-School Tutoring Program, where they lead elementary school girls in an engineering activity and provide math and science tutoring. They also offer a shadowing day for high school seniors, host a summer sleepover for incoming freshman, and volunteer at annual events such as the Engineers Day Open House.
“I love working at the outreach events,” says Abby Burke. “When I was little, I thought engineers drove trains. When I tell younger girls about what I learn and do in my classes, I’m showing them that you can be a girl and be an engineer.”
SWE also emphasizes professional development through several activities: hosting the annual fall Engineering and Computer Science Career Fair, providing networking for seniors at an Evening with Industry event, and sending members to the international conference each year.
“With one of the top-performing SWE chapters nationwide, UK SWE sends far more members to the annual conference than most schools,” says Kim Sayre, the College of Engineering’s director of Industry Engagement, director of the Engineering/MBA Dual Degree Program and the SWE advisor. “We have fantastic support from the whole college, and that helps many women find career opportunities at conference that they never would have had otherwise.”
For Amna, one conference turned into a top-notch internship.
“My first time at conference, I listened to a really inspiring panel of NASA female engineers. Afterwards, I approached one of the engineers, and we really hit it off. I eventually interned with her at NASA,” says Amna. “That experience gave me not only an amazing internship but also a friend and mentor. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
For all of these women, however, what most drew them to SWE was the community it creates. Upper- and under-classmen connect through retreats, monthly meetings and informal hangouts such as pumpkin patch outings and dinners at local restaurants. Brittney Williams, a mechanical engineering sophomore, powerfully benefitted from this rich support.
“As a freshman, I was excited about engineering, but I didn’t know anything about it. I just knew I was going to be a minority,” Brittney remembers. “I walked into my first SWE event not knowing anyone, and within 20 minutes, I felt like I belonged. Finding that early on has encouraged me to keep going through many hard moments.”
SWE women not only befriended but also inspired Abby Burke during her freshman year. “They weren’t the nerdy or awkward girls you might expect. They looked like someone I wanted to be friends with,” she says. “It gives me confidence to know that I’m not the only girl in my classes and that other women have succeeded as I hope to.”
In her advising role, Sayre has seen the profound effects that this support network can have on women.
“I see that we as women engineers are often more critical of ourselves. A guy can get a B and feel pretty good about it, but when a woman gets a B, she questions her entire major choice and potential career path,” she says. “That support group is something they won’t get inside the classroom—they need an organization to make it happen.”
SWE works hard to set an example of diversity on campus, and to make an impact not only at UK but within Lexington as a whole. As a result, its membership has tripled in the past four years. For these efforts, it was named the UK 2016-2017 Student Organization of the Year.
SWE has begun this school year strong, with an enormous kick-off meeting and several events. Members devoted hundreds of hours to prepare for the 2018 Fall Engineering and Computer Science Career Fair, and they are planning the organization’s first-ever Dance Blue team.
“SWE is a great example of how a diverse organization can create belongingness, since we show girls that it’s not crazy to be a female engineer,” says Amna. “This is the new norm.”