We’ve all experienced it at some point, the moment when you tell someone your major and they assume that “Oh, you’re poli sci? You must have an opinion on (insert controversial policy topic).” Or, “You’re an engineer? You must love math and science and be super awkward.” It can be tempting to put people into boxes and assume that people choose to study that one thing they’re good at. As if we have one calling in life, one-dimensional personalities that align with those interests perfectly. I admit I have made those assumptions from time to time and even with a friend group mostly consisting of engineers, I occasionally find myself surprised when they prove to be good writers, or more socially suave than I am (I know, hard to imagine anyone with more swag than moi, but bear with me). If I’ve learned anything after four years at Notre Dame, it’s that the people here are beyond amazing, incredibly impressive, truly down-to-earth, and interesting people who are generally well-rounded. What’s to say you can’t have it all? Why can’t you be good at math and compassionate and creative? Two senior engineering students are proving that you can do just that.
Now it’s time for me to brag about them.
Meet Charlotte Anderson, Class of 2016, Chemical Engineer.
I recently found out that unlike most engineering students at Notre Dame that I know, she is writing a Senior Thesis. But this isn’t just some research paper on transport phenomena or biomolecular compounds. Charlotte is writing a creative writing piece that intersects famous art pieces and engineering. Woah. What?
When I asked her about the pervasive stereotypes of engineering though, she said: “usually when I tell people I’m majoring in Chemical Engineering, their eyebrows shoot up as if they are surprised I’m crawling out of some hole in the crypt of the Hesburgh Library to see the light of day. I think when people hear “Engineering” they have a certain amount of respect for you because they understand what a difficult major it is, but there are also connotations of being nerdy, and serious, and not creative. I fully embrace the nerdy aspect, but engineers are not necessarily serious, uncreative, or boring at all!”
So…Engineers are people too, ok? You think I wouldn’t have to say it but the stereotypes prevail. When you have students like Charlotte who are also fluent in Spanish and like to rap Eminem beats you have got to reevaluate. On top of all of that, Charlotte is also a former varsity athlete, playing three years on the Women’s Varsity Soccer team. She described it as “a crazy whirlwind of activity that [she] wouldn’t trade for anything.” Unfortunately, she suffered an injury that forced her into early retirement, but Charlotte will always be proud of her time as a student-athlete and the chance to wear the #26 jersey for Notre Dame.
Charlotte has a minor in the Glynn Family Honors Program in addition to her demanding chemical engineering major. Charlotte is a life-long bookworm who also grew up playing piano and singing in choirs. Consequently, these interests in music and the humanities prompted her to participate in this honors program as it allowed her to supplement her major with small classes in a variety of disciplines. Though she would have liked to double major in English and engineering, Charlotte found that the Glynn Family Honors Program to be a better fit for her education while still giving her ample support to pursue the interdisciplinary research for her incredible thesis.
Maybe it’s just me, but I am blown away by the niche topic that Charlotte has chosen because it simultaneously challenges the traditional applications of engineering and is also representative of her holistic passions. To explain it in Charlotte’s own words:
“My thesis is titled ‘Defending the Analogy between Engineering and Art.’ I’m writing a creative writing piece that explores five pieces of art (art in the general sense meaning architecture, literature, painting, and sculpture) and relates them to engineering concepts. I believe that art and engineering are fundamentally interrelated disciplines. I have a passion for both the beauty and open-endedness of art and the practicality and logic in engineering. Studying both reveals important insights into what drives us as humans.
I am writing it because I want people who study art to understand that engineering isn’t that foreign, or remote, or inaccessible, or boring, but there are actually some really cool ways that it can inform art. And I want people who study engineering to be able to look at the amazing truths about nature that are revealed in chemistry, transport, physics, biology, reactions, etc… to see them in a new light that doesn’t confine them to just one arena of formulas and equations and calculations. For example, one section of my thesis explores how the concept of power is manifested and communicated in art and engineering, through Thermodynamics and the Rankine Cycle of power production, as well as through Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famous sculpture David, which depicts the boy gathering the strength to defeat the giant Goliath.”
So…yeah. She’s legit.
But she’s not alone.
Meet Andrew Petrisin, Class of 2016, Civil Engineer.
I asked him why he chose engineering and he told me about how he had originally, inspired by his fascination with space, pursued aerospace engineering before switching to civil engineering. If you asked me, I would’ve told you that a civil engineer is into bridges and roads. They’re just construction guys. But his answer spoke to a larger vision. Over time he found himself guided by questions such as: “Who am I? Why am I here?” But, instead of looking to space to find his answers, Andrew says: “now I look around me–in the places I live, the people I meet. You might call my journey of discovery one from space back to earth (aka from Aerospace to Civil Engineering). Instead of learning more about the ‘alien condition’ leading to self-discovery, through civil engineering I feel I’m able to focus more on our shared human condition, and forging my own path of discovery through that avenue. The answers to my questions weren’t “out there”–they are right here.”
But Andrew, what about those stereotypes?
“There are always expectations of everyone based on their major or area of study.” He says. “These aren’t inherently bad to have (we all have them!), but to silo civil engineers as to say they can only do civil engineering things, or to say finance can only do finance things, or political science can only do political science things is doing a disservice to us all.”
For example, it turns out that Andrew is not an engineer because he loves math. But he accepts and works with that facet of his major, because to him, the numbers represent a means to an end. That end is recognizing we have the ability to shape our environment – directly improving our quality of life – through engineering. Additionally, if you believe the environment shapes us in return, then through engineering, Andrew feels you can also shape the people who live in these environments. Putting up with a little bit of math is worth pursuing that end goal.
This big-picture, person-centered approach that Andrew has taken with regards to his studies at Notre Dame has culminated in the pursuit of some truly interesting projects that push the boundaries of an ordinary civil engineer. In particular, Andrew has worked with Professor Reifenberg, Executive Director of Kellogg Institute for International Studies, to examine the intersection of design thinking, international development, and engineering. This curiosity has led him across the country to Stanford University, and across the Atlantic to Berlin, Germany to investigate these interdisciplinary ideas.
In explaining all of this to me, Andrew says,
“Design Thinking is a collaborative, empathetic, and creative way to come up with new and innovative solutions to challenges (buzz-wordy I know). This can be anything from a product or app, to designing your life! It focuses on human centered design, and empathizing with those who you are designing with. Humbling yourself to say that you don’t know what is best for them, but that together you both can come up with better solutions than before.
This project has implications for international development both in how to integrate international development throughout campus but also guiding implementation in development. Through studying international development, I have realized how truly interconnected we all are, and that to realize the beauty of this interconnectedness is to walk beside others, and to move forward addressing the challenges we face together. This way of thinking can also be termed ‘accompaniment’.”
This is important to Andrew, and really should be important to anyone, because this type of thinking can help us “break out of our ‘silos’ and work collaboratively independent of what we study.”
Andrew’s research and passion for these topics challenge us to think beyond our majors, beyond numbers, politics, or money, and to think about the interconnectedness of people. “To accompany someone to me is to really love someone–to say that you are going to be with this person, together, through anything. [My research] has given me a lot of perspective on what it really means to act ‘with’ others, and not ‘for’ others–something that I now think about all the time.”
Clearly, Andrew is a man with vision–one with high hopes for himself, for academia, and for humanity.
While Andrew and Charlotte might appear unique “for engineers,” I’d rather say that they are simply distinctive individuals and my interactions with them make me confident that we would be better off by not comparing people to their majors.
You only have four years at Notre Dame. Don’t let the labels stop you from getting to know the whole person and don’t let your major flatten your potential.
“No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.” – Ansel Adams, photographer