The word “trailblazer” is often associated with the names of important people that have made big changes for the world in the fields of science or technology, and yes, they are absolutely incredible. However, people who change the game don’t always walk in the landscape of their own shadow. I believe some of the greatest influencers are the ones that chose to live in freedom by pursuing the life they wanted to live. And I consider my mother to be a trailblazer in a league of her own.
My mother enrolled in Michigan Tech in 1971 as an undeclared engineering major. The second woman in her family to go to college, she was one of the 500 women on a campus of 6,000, fierce to make known that she wasn’t at the college to find a mate. She was there because she didn’t see her position as a woman as hindrance to a career, but as a human being pursuing the thing she loved.
Her freshman year was filled with mostly acceptance, a few side eyes, and a professor nearing retirement who didn’t think a woman’s place should be in the engineering department. She recalled one visit to the campus counselor her freshman year to decide which engineering program she should enter the following year. Despite her impressive grades and keen learning abilities, he told her she might be better suited in the technology-writing program because he believed that was more appropriate for a woman.
She called her father who asked her the one question that changed everything:
“What are you good at?”
“Math and Science.”
“Then be an engineer.”
She graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1975 with a degree in chemical engineering.
Nearly 10 years prior, sex/gender was added to the list for affirmative action in the United States. In order to keep up with the law, there was a big push for hiring women engineers at the time of her graduation. She received dozens of job interviews from cities all over the country and kept each letter in a box under her bed, where she would pull them out periodically to see if there was a job offering near where her fiancé worked.
She struggled to find work close to the city of St. Joe so she called up all of the job coordinators and told them that if they wanted her, they would have to make a job for her fiancé, an electrical engineer. Two companies, one in Charleston and one in Cleveland, were willing to take her deal. They settled at the refinery in Cleveland.
Her new boss didn’t know how to train new employees, so he handed her a box of manuals and told her to read. He wasn’t biased against my mother; he just didn’t know what to do with her. Another department noticed my mother constantly reading manuals and asked her if she wanted to work on a project for their department. She immediately said yes. It was the computer simulation team, which is a fancy term for the group of people who design the process for building refineries. The team leader was so impressed with her work on the project; they asked her to come on to the department full-time. She agreed and designed the Acrylio 3, which I’m told is a big plant in Texas.
In 1985, she retired in order to move to the next chapter of her life and start a family. She started a bank account for my brother and I so that we could go to college one day, and pursue our own passions.
Above all, my mother instilled in me one intrinsic value – you can dream big or small, but never stop dreaming. I was raised in a home that taught me that we should see the beauty and talents of other people because of who created them, not what sex or gender they were created as. We all carry these stories of monumental triumphs, because of the people who simply lived their lives before us a paved a better world for you and I today. These stories should be told, to inspire others to live with complete freedom.
Becky Hartung is a writer, communicator, and researcher. She is a graduate of Biola University and holds a BA in rhetorical and interpersonal communication. In 2015, her pilot study on the connection of humor and communication was accepted to the National Communication Convention. She teaches on the study while she pursuing further graduate work in humor and advocacy communication. Her book, Running in the Dark, chronicles her journey of breaking stigmas in mental health, navigating life in Los Angeles, and finding space to laugh with friends along the way. Find her on Twitter @beckyhartung and Instagram @beckyhartung.