Double Minority? My Experience as a Female Engineering Student

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A special moment for Audrey: the end of the commencement ceremony for the College of Science and Engineering in 2019.
A special moment for Audrey: the end of the commencement ceremony for the College of Science and Engineering in 2019.

Our contributor, Audrey Sunanda has important stories to tell about being a minority in a foreign country. After facing some challenging moments of being a double minority student in college, Audrey learned that every cloud has a silver lining. She now thinks of her experience as a two-sided coin: she can look at it as a disadvantage or as an ace card. “When people expect less to nothing of you, you’ll have this “surprise” effect when you actually deliver. As opportunistic as this sounds, this can actually be a stepping stone for me. Instead of dwelling on the negative side, I choose to look at it positively,” Audrey wrote.

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“… You’re a female, international, engineering student in the Midwest, so you are basically a double minority.”

It was in November 2015 and I had just started my undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota for two months when I heard him saying that to me. He was an Indian professor, whom I ended up working for. I worked as an undergraduate research assistant in his lab for almost two years before quitting to concentrate more on my studies.

He was right. Throughout my four-year studies, I did experience a lot of that ‘double minority.’ I should remind you that Minnesota is not as diverse as Los Angeles. In fact, a lot of places in the U.S. are actually not. But no, Minnesota is not 99% populated by white people; it has the highest Somali population all around the United States, a significant number of Hmong and Vietnamese immigrants and around 6,000 international students in the University. So, Minnesota is somewhat diverse, but not the most diverse.

The first year was manageable for me. I was offered a job as a teaching assistant for general Physics due to my performance in the fall semester, which I rejected due to my job as a research assistant. However, the upcoming years were different. I was shocked when I had my first ChemE class in the sophomore year. It was like no other; the information was all new and I was overwhelmed. I cried when I got my first midterm result and stressed out on almost every homework, especially because the homework had a significant portion to my final grade.

I learned a bit late that it was impossible to fight by yourself in this major; you’ll need to go to office hours (OH) to get your homework done, have a group of friends to study (and suffer) with, and do your homework as early as you can before you drown in the pool of deadlines. Slowly, but surely, I started to get a grip on it. I hated going to OH, but I needed the help desperately. After a few times, I noticed that I always see similar faces during the OH, so I tried approaching one of my classmates, whom I knew had solved the problem I was having trouble with. He ignored me. It might be because he was busy, or maybe he didn’t hear me, but he didn’t respond. A few weeks later, my best friend, who’s also a female international student, had the same experience.

A glimpse of Audrey's work as a research assistant. These are some bio-plasticizer samples prepared for titration to determine their characteristics.
A glimpse of Audrey’s work as a research assistant.

 

These are some bio-plasticizer samples prepared for titration to determine their characteristics.
These are some bio-plasticizer samples prepared for titration to determine their characteristics.

In my junior year, I had more lab classes and what’s different about them was that no exact procedure was given to the students. We were given prompts to answer and a few guidelines, but the way you conduct the experiment, how much data to take, what equations to use, and how to determine the validity of the data were for the students to decide.

Therefore, discussions within the team members are essential – and this is where I felt the “double minority” to hit me most. The lab discussion almost always started with the smartest person laying out the prompt, which equations correlate to it and then everybody would start sharing their ideas. It might be facts or just pure feelings, but I knew my ideas weren’t considered. Initially, I thought it was because my ideas were bad. However, later I realized that occasionally during the actual lab, after attempting on other people’s ideas that didn’t work, my ideas were implemented instead. There are two striking realities about this: the fact that they didn’t even discuss my ideas previously and that they acted as if no one has come up with it before. After this happened multiple times, it started to get into my head. I was both motivated and insecure. I am not one to force someone to listen to my opinions, so the solution that I came up with was to come more prepared prior to the discussions. Previously, I would come without much on my hand: I only read through the prompts to at least know which material will be covered in the lab.

Afterward, I came to the discussion more prepared. I printed out the prompts and put all the main equations next to the relevant questions. I highlighted some of the more essential specifications, usually hinted by our professors during the lecture. This way, I could provide them with the arguments behind my ideas, which were usually based on the highlighted information. Please note that I’m no God, so there were also times where my ideas were incorrect or ineffective, which is why a dynamic and fair discussion is important. This method could potentially fail, but it actually worked most of the time. From this, I learned that it actually feels really nice to let people know that you are more than what they thought and that coming more prepared is never a disadvantage.

The Chemical Engineering building in the University of Minnesota, where the ChemE classes and labs are held at.
The Chemical Engineering building in the University of Minnesota, where the ChemE classes and labs are held at.

Another personal experience of this “stigma” happened in my senior year. The ChemE lab at my university was split into two semesters: one in junior year and one in senior. During my senior ChemE lab, one of my lab partners got really surprised (and not in the most pleasant way), when she knew sometime in the middle of the semester, that I actually scored an A in the junior lab. I guess she didn’t expect that someone like me could earn a higher grade than her. It was honestly more amusing than offensive for me.

Additionally, I also learned that consistency is key. In the senior year, people have back-to-back pre and post-lab reports, midterms, projects, and job interviews. It became very easy for people to start slipping away and burn out. And this is where I prevailed. As some people started to abandon their responsibilities, there are also people who actually paced their work and continue to deliver regardless of the condition—and this shows accountability.

A building located next to the building shown in Figure 1, where most ChemE students do their lab reports and homework.
A building where most ChemE students do their lab reports and homework.

There is honestly a lot of possibilities on why people look down on me. It can be due to my physical appearance: I only stand at 5’1, which makes me quite short compared to others. My features are 100% Asian, which can lead to people thinking that I wouldn’t be able to speak English clearly. If I have to give a survival tip for you about living as minority in a foreign country, it would be to find your peers. Find people who shared your struggles and understand your concerns. A struggle is a struggle, but struggling together is better than alone. My good friends and I used to take turns going to office hours in case someone was too occupied with other things or was just simply tired. If someone is really your friend, he/she wouldn’t mind sharing the solutions with you, because they know that you’ll do the same for them. And remember that what people think of you does not always reflect who you really are.