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To the struggling Engineering student

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

When I graduated from Vanderbilt in 2003 with my PhD in Electrical Engineering, I was the second Black woman to do so. Shout out to Cassandra Swain, who was first. We both got our degrees in the Center for Intelligent Systems Intelligent Robotics Lab.

I am so grateful my masters advisor, Dr. Andrez Olbrot, and Dean Gerald Thompkins at Wayne State were willing to take a chance on me. I could not earn my PhD without them. They realized that my undergraduate GPA in no way reflected my ability. In undergrad, I worked way too many jobs just to stay in school and my grades showed it. Dr. Olbrot awarded me a fellowship which allowed me to go to school full time. Dr. Olbrot was killed by one of his students several years after I graduated. May he rest in peace.

By the time I finished Georgia Tech and Wayne State, I had developed study habits that served me well in my PhD program. I was so excited and honored to work with my two advisors, Dr. Kazuhiko Kawamura and Dr. Julie Adams to complete my PhD. My work was at the intersection of controls, robotics and human-computer interaction so I had an EE and CS advisor.

When I completed that six year journey, the school newspaper asked me to write an article on whatever I wanted. Since I had always said that if I finally got my doctorate, it would only be by the grace of God because there was nothing about me or my background that said I should be there, I immediately knew what I would write about. So the title of my article was born, "To the struggling Engineering student". I still have a copy of that article somewhere but too bad I am too lazy to go find it. 🤣

This list includes advice I wish I had before my F in Digital Logic, F in Electromagnetics and many hours of misery and stress. So here is my revisited and updated list to include the benefits of my wisdom from 18 years of teaching as an engineering professor.

To the struggling engineering student,

  1. Don't give up, if it is your desire to be an engineer, then don't let anything or anyone stop you. By any means necessary. Keep going against all odds.

  2. Engineering school is NOT easy, if it was then everyone would do it. I have met many physicians and people in business who started in engineering and left after that first Physics or Calculus course.

  3. You don't have to be super smart to be an engineer but you do need to be focused, disciplined, dedicated, and organized.

  4. Go to class everyday, sit in the front of the room and take good neat, legible notes. Review your notes after class and fill in any gaps with textbook readings or going to ask the professor for clarity.

  5. Ask questions, answer questions and get to know your professors personally. Treat them like people. You may need them for a grad school or summer research experience recommendation. It is hard for faculty to write about you, when they don't know you and you have never tried to get to know them.

  6. Go to office hours and show up prepared with specific questions. Don't just show up and say I know nothing and I have done nothing, feed me like a baby bird. To whom much is given, much is required. It really frustrates professors when you show up to their office and you have done nothing to help yourself. Even if you have a page full of gibberish at least it shows you tried.

  7. Get to know your classmates, talk to them, learn their names, get their phone numbers or whatever you younguns do to communicate. Also, join a study group.

  8. Go to the learning center and get tutored if you need help. There is no honor in struggling because you are too prideful to ask for help.

  9. Read the textbook and take notes to review later as you read. Throw the yellow highlighter out. Highlighting just delays your learning. Being active with notes and examples and reflections engages you mentally in the moment.

  10. Study in between classes or go to office hours , library, or tutoring. Don't go back to the dorm and take a nap. The library is a great place to hang out, BTW. Other than Club Woody, that was for meeting people in the early 90s. 🤣 Club Woody = Woodruff Library in Atlanta University Center.

  11. Start early on all assignments, this means before the night before so there is time to get help and ask questions if you don't understand.

  12. Stay off of websites like CHEGG and don't use pirated solution manuals. Actually try to complete and understand the homework, this will be invaluable for exams.

  13. Make a study guide or study outline and start studying for exams at least a week in advance. Cramming may work temporarily but you will learn and retain nothing. Trust, I am a witness to this bad practice. 😒

  14. If the professor has exam review or study sessions, always go.

  15. Review your graded assignments and if you don't understand why you missed something, go ask for help. Also, always correct missed problems and make sure you integrate all feedback into future assignments.

  16. Make a weekly schedule of class time, studying, eating, sleeping, working to make sure yo don't spread yourself too thin. I know, I know easier said than done. I don't usually follow this one either!

  17. A good rule of thumb is to study 2 hours for every hour you are in class, which means if you have 15 credit hours that is 30 hours of studying. Sounds like a full time job, right? Well it is. Until you graduate, college is your full time job.

  18. That party can wait, there will always be another one. Hitting the books and getting your degree is way more important. Your true friends will understand your hustle.

  19. Try to hit the ground running during your freshman year to get your GPA up. It is much harder to dig out of the hole once you move into the more difficult courses later in your major.

  20. Your journey through STEM is an obstacle course, a marathon not a sprint. You are not racing against anyone but yourself. Be forgiving to yourself and realize the only perfect path, is completion.

I know this is a lot and I don't expect you to be able to do it all at once. However, it is a beginning. If you even get half of it done, that is a great start. Once that becomes a habit, add on something else.

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