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Monday, October 22, 2018

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Alex Rizeq, a junior studying construction engineering, hard at work in her field. Alex Rizeq, a junior studying construction engineering, hard at work in her field.

Beating the Odds

Women must overcome a series of challenges to succeed as engineers.
By Beth Downing Chee

This story is part of a series exploring women in engineering at SDSU.

Today women make up more than half of all college students in the country. They dominate the social sciences and are slowly gaining ground in STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — disciplines such as biology and mathematics.

But engineering remains a stubbornly male-dominated field with women making up just 18 percent of all engineering undergraduates in the U.S. Here at SDSU, 15 percent of engineering undergraduates are women.

Some people say it’s because women aren’t good at math or that they aren’t capable of thinking in the analytical way engineering requires. Others blame the toys girls grow up playing with, like Barbie and My Little Pony, while boys are busy with building blocks and Lego sets.

The team at SDSU NewsCenter worked with Gary Robbins from U-T San Diego on his story “Why So Few Women in Engineering,” and were intrigued to hear the stories our female engineering students have to tell. We are launching this series to explore both the challenges women in this field face and the incredible work they are doing.

Many of the women we spoke to had been told “girls just can’t do math.” They experienced the intimidation of walking into a class of 100 students and being the only female in the room. Even today, they fear they won’t be able to find jobs after graduation, not because they aren’t good enough, but because of a potential bias against women in the industry.

But it’s not all bad — they love their work, they have professors and mentors who support them, and they enjoy proving people wrong as they succeed in this challenging field. 

There are 411 undergraduate women in SDSU’s engineering program, many of whom are thriving on their path to engineering careers. Here are just a few:

Vanessa Bundy, senior, mechanical engineering

Vanessa Bundy has always been good at math. A twin, she is the more serious, analytical side of the coin, while her sister is more creative and free-spirited. Despite her exposure to math and science, Bundy didn’t know what engineering was until she came to SDSU as a math major.

Vanessa Bundy headshot
Vanessa Bundy

“What they were doing was so much cooler than math,” Bundy said of fellow students living in her residence hall who were working on engineering projects. She soon switched her major to mechanical engineering with a minor in math.

Now, Bundy’s a charter member and president of Alpha Omega Epsilon, a professional sorority for women studying engineering and technical science and an active member of SDSU’s Rocket Project. She is also an intern at San Diego Composites, an aerospace engineering company, where she works designing rocket parts that are too classified to tell us about. She is the only female of 30 engineers, technology and manufacturing staff.

When asked what she loves about being an engineering major, Bundy reels off several advantages — being hands-on, solving problems, working in teams and knowing that your work has real-world applications.

“The ‘I made that’ feeling is a good feeling,” she said. Bundy plans to earn her master’s degree and work her way up the ranks at San Diego Composites. Someday she hopes to design a household item that everyone has, but no one really thinks about, like the stapler.

Alexa Rizeq, junior, construction engineering

Alexa Rizeq is living proof that women in engineering really can do it all.

A construction engineering major and business management minor, Rizeq is a member of Alpha Phi Sorority and many academic organizations and honor societies at SDSU.

Encouraged by her father, who holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, Rizeq developed a natural love for math and science at an early age. She came to SDSU as an environmental engineering major, but soon decided that construction was her forte.

Alexa Rizeq headshot
Alexa Rizeq

“I ended up in construction engineering because I’ve always had an interest in buildings, and originally wanted to be an architect,” said Rizeq, a member of the Associated General Contractors/Construction Management Association of America. “But I lack artistic ability, which determined that architecture was not the career path for me.”

Rizeq said the small class sizes in construction engineering management encourage camaraderie among students, both male and female.

“I actually don’t really mind being in class with mostly males. I have two younger brothers who I’m close in age with, so I’m used to how guys act and their sense of humor,” Rizeq said.

Small class sizes have also afforded her opportunities to work closely with professors and advisers. Recently, Rizeq was invited by SDSU faculty to speak to 300 high school students at the Constructing a Career Conference. She plans to tell them about how she successfully balances her challenging academic schedule with her personal life.

In the future, Rizeq hopes to work in the preconstruction aspects of construction engineering which encompass the business side of the industry and overall construction management. She is currently on the preconstruction team for an annual competition in Reno, Nevada.

Kensey Daly, senior, environmental engineering

Kensey Daly, the president of SDSU’s Engineers Without Borders chapter, keeps busy with SDSU’s myriad engineering-related clubs, organizations and projects for students.

Kensey Daly headshot
Kensey Daly

“There are so many opportunities to get involved with awesome projects at SDSU, it's tricky figuring out where to spend most of your energy,” Daly said.

She is involved in the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers, and is currently working on four projects ranging from water filtration to biofuel development. Daly’s expertise in math and science, together with her love for a good challenge, drove her to pursue a career in an industry that’s all about solving challenges with creativity and imagination. And she’s not rattled by her male counterparts either.

“I've worked with many guys who want to get things done their way and have difficulties taking criticism, especially from women,” Daly said.

Her future goal is to work with water — either water resources or water treatment. She is also channeling her Engineers Without Borders experiences into pursuing her dream career.

“I am very passionate about helping developing communities obtain healthier and safer living conditions and enjoy working on projects that make an impact on people's lives.”

Eve Christman, sophomore, aerospace engineering

Growing up in Ridgecrest, Calif., Eve Christman witnessed military testing with state-of-the-art jets.

Eve Christman headshot
Eve Christman

Her eyes lit up whenever she talked about aerospace engineering with her parents, but she didn’t consider a career in the field until her introduction in high school to the engineering program, Project Lead the Way

“These classes really encouraged me to think beyond the box and incorporate each skill my teachers taught me into real-life problem solving,” Christman said of the program.

At SDSU, Christman is president of the Society of Women Engineers and involved with SDSU Ambassadors and Associated Students.

She is also an intern at Northrop Grumman Corporation, a leading global security company, where she has achieved top secret security clearance. She hopes to work someday at an executive level for Northrop or a similar company.

In her spare time, Christman is learning to fly. She is on track to receive a pilot’s license next month.

“Engineering is a male-dominated field,” said Christman. “It can easily break any student without a strong understanding of herself.” 

Alyson Faucett, Hallie Jacobs and Clarissa Slagle contributed to this article.