I am wrapping up a 25-plus year career as an environmental engineer, and I was recently inaugurated as president of the Society of Women Engineers, one of the largest organizations supporting women in engineering. This is a significant accomplishment for me, and I’ve come a long way from my small apartment in Lansing, MI where I found myself in my 20’s, divorced and raising an amazing daughter. Education played a big part in where I am today.

 

Whatever they can do...

Working as a secretary back then, I observed what the men in my company were doing. They were engineers making a big paycheck and a huge difference in the world. I thought, “Hey, I can do that.” So, I enrolled in school.

As I progressed in my career, I found that I needed an outlet to practice leadership skills that could be translated into the workforce.

I earned as many credits as possible at Lansing Community College before I transferred to Michigan State University. For my last two years, I was working 30 hours/week and getting my engineering degree at Michigan State. I had no real role models, I didn’t live on campus and none of my classmates were supporting a child like I was. After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, with honors, I attended the University of Washington to continue my education. I accomplished a Master of Business Administration here. Michigan State and the University of Washington provided the education I needed to get the job I wanted. And, getting involved in non-profit organizations, like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), opened the doors to a variety of non-traditional continuing education opportunities.

 

A league of our own

At the beginning of my career, joining an organization like SWE meant joining a network of like-minded women studying engineering just like I was. As I progressed in my career, I found that I needed an outlet to practice leadership skills that could be translated into the workforce. I was able to do that at SWE – trying out skills like public speaking and management in a non-threatening environment.

Continuing education isn’t just something that happens in the classroom, however. Continuing education opportunities happen while you are connecting with people, while you are getting involved, and while you are exercising the skills you have a strength in and the ones you don’t. I truly believe that we are always learning.

As I soon wrap up my amazing career in engineering, a career I am very proud of, I will go on to continue learning. I will stay involved in community programs and organizations and continue to practice those skills that I worked so hard to build, from my days spent at Lansing Community College, Michigan State and the University of Washington, to my career as an environmental engineer.

Penny Wirsing in an environmental manager at Torrance Refining Company and president of the Society of Women Engineers.