A literate engineer

Brittany L. Strachota

Since this is a study away post, I feel obligated to share a few cool photos irrelevant to the actual content. Here's a bit from a weekend jaunt to London:

DSC03059.JPGView from the London Eye


Westminster Abbey, Big Ben's tower, and the Eye

Kings Cross and just outside Abbey Road Studios
Now, to the meat.

Studying away is, in a word, smart. Perhaps not for everybody, but I would argue that for most people, and in particular, most engineering students (and even more particularly, Olin engineering students), spending some time outside of one's comfort zone is invaluable. Increasingly, engineers are expected to collaborate with people from vastly different cultures, different disciplines, and even work abroad. Plus, it's easy for an engineering student to become stuck on a treadmill, running blindly toward a technical degree without so much as glancing to the side.

Olin encourages some peripheral viewing with the AHS/E! (Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, Entrepreneurship) program, and I'm so glad for it. In speaking with some other internationals here in Leeds, it sounds like more and more engineering universities are beginning to implement similar requirements as they realize that breadth is imperative. Engineers cannot be shut in a closet, tinkering away all day, ignoring all those [liberal] artsy folks. At Olin, it would be extraordinarily easy to associate only with one's 300 or so engineer peers; things such as the AHS/E! requirement are absolutely necessary just to combat the potential of a cloistered, one-dimensional community. Only by getting off-campus, be it Wellesley or the UK, do I interact with these "others."

But this can be terrifying.

Throughout grade school and high school, I secured my best grades in English classes. We're talking literary analysis, people. Apparently, I was decent at it. But I always fought my teachers and reminded them that I was going to study engineering anyway (I was fairly strong-willed). However, after two years in engineering school, I realize how important it is to nurture the other half of our brains -- more specifically, reading and analyzing literature. So I forced myself to register for 20th Century Fiction in English.

Sitting in our first small-group seminar, I felt like a poser. The tutor told us that she expected a wide array of majors and such, since it's an elective class, so I didn't feel so bad. Then we went around the circle and introduced ourselves and our majors. "Psychology." "English Literature." "Psychology and English Literature." "Historical Literature." "Art." Then, in an outrageous American accent, "Engineering."

"Fantastic," concluded the tutor. "With the exception of engineering here, all sorts of liberal arts." Day One, and I'm pegged as the American engineer. Awesome. Then they all started talking about their favorite authors and the books they've read. I thought I felt stupid at Olin. This was absurd.

I remained quiet in the following seminar, falling into my usual silent routine. However, the next week, we were asked to prepare a close reading of a passage of our choice. I was rather nervous and hesitant to share what I had come up with, but soon it came to my turn. Now, I don't remember what I said (something about Heart of Darkness), but the tutor stopped taking notes and looked up at me, seemingly surprised. I do remember what she said: "Yes, I think that's a very good reading of that section." She may as well have told me I had just won a Pulitzer.

"I can do this," I thought. "I have just as much right as these [liberal] artsy folks to be in this class!"

We'll see how I'm feeling after we get our graded essays back, but for now, I'm just pleased that I was able to get over my discomfort and try something "new." If I weren't away, I don't think I would have been able to clear that mental hurdle. Hopefully, this seedling of confidence will survive the plane ride back to Needham, but for now, I'm happy to be out of my comfort zone.

I challenge you to take a swing at your own hurdle, no matter where in the world you might be at the moment. Even if you fall flat on your face, you get a cool wound to show off.

Don't forget to visit http://olinaway.tumblr.com/ to keep up with Oliners around the world!

Posted in: Class of 2013