During my undergraduate and graduate academic career, I discovered that support and community are essential for recruitment and retention of students, especially for those who are underrepresented. I founded and directed the Graduate Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE) at the University of Illinois in 2012 to establish a support network for female graduate students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. I created the organization with the mission to promote diversity in education in engineering and science to enable innovative and creative solutions to the future technical challenges of society.
Like many other graduate students I faced challenges during my studies. Some days I felt like a competent and confident young researcher, but on other days I questioned why I had chosen to go to graduate school and wondered if I had what it took to do a PhD. On bad days, I was convinced that my graduate school application had been mixed up with someone else’s, that my instructors must have made a mistake if I had received high marks in a difficult course, and that I was fooling my PhD advisor into thinking I was a good student because I happen to be good a making power point presentations. I contemplated leaving graduate school and even science all together, because I didn’t think I belonged.
I decided to do some research and see if I could find remedies to make me a better student, but instead I discovered that what I was feeling was very common. I had all the classic signs of “imposter syndrome,” a common phenomenon in which people are unable to recognize their achievements and attribute their success to coincidences or mistakes rather than to their own capabilities. There were studies and data on the topic, even talks and books on what it is, why it happens, how to combat it. “Wow!” I thought, “I’m not alone!” I didn’t have to go through another day thinking that I didn’t belong in graduate school.
That realization got the ball rolling. I wondered why I hadn’t heard about imposter syndrome before, and what else was out there that I didn’t know about yet. If I was not the only one with imposter thoughts, then I probably wasn’t the only one who wondered what kind of career paths existed for PhDs outside of academic research, how to better balance my professional and personal life, how to prepare for a job interview, how to write a successful grant application, etc. At this point, my goal was to find other graduate students and bring us together so we could share knowledge, ideas, and resources, but such a group did not exist. So, I decided to create one.
My goal was to build a support community for graduate women in science and engineering. I joined the Professional Liaison committee of the Society of Women Engineers collegiate chapter at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the Graduate Chair. Even though there was virtually no graduate student involvement in the SWE chapter at the time, I joined because one of the missions of the organization is to support and advocate for women engineers, which is exactly what I was looking for.
Early days of GRADSWE
As the organization was 99% undergraduate students, I wanted to begin bridging the gap with graduate students by introducing a few mentoring events like the Why Graduate School Panel and Undergraduate Research Workshop.
At the same time as I was organizing events for undergraduate students, I was also meeting with graduate students to gauge interest in starting our own committee. I found a group of four other women and we petitioned to start our committee in the SWE structure and registered as our own student organization. In 2012 GradSWE at Illinois was launched and we started hosting events to bring graduate students together.
Launch of weSTEM and growth of gradswe
As the committee grew so did the ideas. We discussed the possibility of hosting our own conference for graduate women in STEM. Conceptualizing, designing, and hosting a conference is a great deal of work, especially for a group of full time PhD students, but we were ambitious and believed strongly that many graduate women would be interested, so we went for it. I managed the committee of eight women who developed all aspects of the conference from fundraising, to inviting speakers, to advertising, and logistics. The weSTEM conference (Women Empowered in STEM) was held on April 20, 2013 in the Siebel Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana.
It was the flagship event of GradSWE and it had earned us visibility throughout the university. Over 60 Illinois graduate students attended along with over 10 guests and speakers from around the Unites States. Our organization had grown from a five person committee to a network of over 200 students in less than 2 years.
growth and sustainability of gradSwe
I was so happy with what GradSWE had become during my time as Director and it was time to pass the reigns to a new leader. As with most student organizations, our goal was to have a 1 year commitment for official leadership positions so as to not overwhelm anyone with responsibility and ensure that the organization remains relevant for incoming students.
So, at the end of 2012-2013 academic year my colleague and dear friend, Samantha Knoll, became the second GradSWE Director at Illinois. I was the GradSWE/weSTEM advisor for my last year of my PhD and I stayed involved until I graduated. The next GradSWE Director will begin in the summer of 2016, which marks the beginning of the fifth year of the organization.