Small program presents valuable opportunities for mechanical engineering graduates

by | Dec 11, 2017

Co-op positions and a close-knit community of students have been highlights of Kristin Gonzalez and Kelsey Wortmann's undergraduate experiences.
Mechanical engineering majors Kelsey Wortmann and Kristin Gonzalez

Kelsey Wortmann (at left) and Kristin Gonzalez will be the lone female mechanical engineering majors to cross the commencement stage on Saturday. While they are outnumbered at work and in a majority of their classes, the students embrace the challenges that come with being a woman in engineering. (Photo by August Jennewein)

For Kristin Gonzalez, there are few motivational factors stronger than rejection.

The denial undoubtedly stings at first, but the University of Missouri–St. Louis senior lets little time pass before putting in the work to turn the no into a yes.

The tenacity and sense of humor Gonzalez brings to these discouraging situations are admirable traits – ones that started when she was young and her mother suggested Gonzalez try ballet in addition to her preferred sport of golf. Ultimately, Gonzalez won that battle, and her winning tradition has continued into adulthood.

During her time in the joint engineering program, a partnership between UMSL and Washington University in St. Louis, Gonzalez has set many challenges for herself – with acquiring a co-op position for Boeing at the top of the list.

It took a few years and 13 applications, but the mechanical engineering major’s perseverance paid off once more. Now after a semester of interning with Boeing’s training systems group, she will continue the role full time after graduating on Saturday.

“It’s pretty cool to walk around and say I’m a design engineer for Boeing,” Gonzalez noted. “I really like the work. It’s basically what I’ve been wanting to do since out of high school.”

One of only two women graduating with a mechanical engineering degree this fall, Gonzalez is not alone in her emotional endurance.

Kelsey Wortmann, also a graduating mechanical engineer and mathematics minor, is frequently underestimated. The Pierre Laclede Honors College student finds strength in these circumstances, though, and uses them as fuel to move forward.

“With the harder assignments, I just keep proving myself with each one, and I keep asking for more challenges,” the soon-to-be full-time engineer at Emerson said. “I don’t just sit there and wait around for people to come to me.”

While Wortmann and Gonzalez may be outnumbered at work and in many of their classes, the number of women pursuing engineering at UMSL is growing. Of the 17 students graduating from the university’s three engineering degree programs in December, five are women – a record percentage. Female representation is also rising across the board, as 21 percent of all engineering students at UMSL are women.

But while the numbers show positive trends, Wortmann and Gonzalez said they still occasionally find themselves at a disadvantage, particularly in terms of previous knowledge and skills.

“Most boys at a young age are learning structures, things about cars, basically skills that put you into the engineering field,” said Gonzalez, who also competed on the women’s golf team and pursued a mathematics minor while at UMSL. “They are taking things apart and putting them back together. Girls don’t typically learn that until they’re pursuing engineering.”

Wortmann and Gonzalez both relate to this standard narrative, so they worked in double-time to simultaneously learn the coursework and the machinery needed to complete their projects.

Recognizing this as an issue, Wortmann used her membership on the Joint Mechanical Engineering Student Advisory Board to advocate for a machine-shop practicum. Faculty recognized the necessity as well and implemented a course last summer.

This leadership experience and the small community offered within the program provided an outlet where Wortmann felt she could grow as an engineer and as a person.

“I used to be really quiet, but I got so comfortable seeing the same people in my classes that I actually got more confident in sharing ideas,” Wortmann said. “I feel like I can do that at work now pretty easily. Before, I wouldn’t even raise my hand in a math class.”

This small but growing community has challenged the women and, as Gonzalez notes, allowed them to “grow up together.”

With both students graduating and transitioning their co-op positions into full-time roles, they are now focused on advancing their careers.

Wortmann hopes to utilize the confidence and leadership skills she developed at UMSL to pursue a role in project management.

“I think it would be really cool to actually have a leadership position,” Wortmann said. “I feel like I’ve had some leadership positions here even with the student advisory board, which I really enjoyed. I liked being the person that everybody came to.”

An ambitious Gonzalez is already aiming big with hopes of one day leading an organization as CEO. While she’s realistic that it may take a while to reach the top, she’s no stranger to patience.

The UMSL Experience

Sara Bell

Sara Bell