How to maintain a passion for engineering in college

Before I get into a long anecdote surround a quarter life crisis, I’ll go ahead and give the solution: join engineering clubs. If you just want to know about this solution, go ahead and skip down to Why things changed.

Why I needed a change

Studying engineering is hard, but also rewarding. As an engineering student, one of the hardest parts can be keeping your eye on that reward. In my studies, have come to two points where I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an engineer. Two points where I was afraid that all my studies would lead a career that feels like a prolonged homework problem.

In both cases there was one clear causal factor: a lack of application. My first crisis occurred just over a year after my first projects course had ended. Since then, my studies had been exclusively theoretical. Then came a rather difficult school week, as can happen in engineering schools. In the midst of sleep deprivation, exams, stress, and lab reports, I couldn’t find it in myself to say that this is worth it. I would later realize that this was due to how little creativity I was being encouraged to use. For the time being, I sucked it up and trudged through my work. When the week was over, things went back to normal.

The second case was worse, a real quarter life crisis. I had had landed an fantastic internship that would eventually lead into my dream job. I shadowed my mentor to meetings for projects that genuinely mattered. I learned all of the bells and whistles of the business. However, as time passed I became less and less passionate. Eventually I abandoned the idea of working in this field entirely. In a panic, I changed my major to physics causing the least happy semester of my life.

I learned something about myself that semester. I had chosen to study engineering because I wanted to create. It wasn’t inherently engineering and my internship that had made me so unhappy. It was the lack of opportunity to apply anything that I had learned. I hadn’t created anything with my hard earned knowledge. I quickly realized that physics was the wrong field for me and moved back to civil engineering. Things changed for the better.

Why things changed

I joined a club! Two actually. If there is one piece of advice I can give to any college student, that’s it. By the time I joined, it was the second semester of my junior year, and until I then I had never applied what I was learning in college. Now that I’m finally getting to use what I know, I feel like these are the glory days. I have never been more content with my education.

I became mildly associated with CU Bridge to Prosperity and I’m looking forward to becoming more involved next semester. The club I really came to love, however, was the CU seismic design team–a section of the CU chapter of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI).

The premise of the seismic design team:

  1. Design a structure that is
    1. Economically feasible
    2. Architecturally attractive and
    3. Most importantly, can withstand an earthquake
  2. Build a scale model out of balsawood
  3. Travel to an international competition where you
    1. Present your design
    2. Put your model through scale earthquakes and hope it doesn’t break

Shortly after me joining the club, we began construction. I was cutting and gluing balsa wood for hours every day. Each time I showed up, I left with some new bit of knowledge. The seniors on the team had picked up a thing or two outside of their courses and they were always excited to share them. This was one of the best factors of the club. Every time I glued a piece onto the building, one of its designers was there explaining what it did, why it was needed, and the theory behind it. That took place while I watched the building rise floor by floor for weeks until the glorious day it was finally complete. The build helped to re-spark my passion for engineering.

Although I had only recently joined the club, I was given the opportunity to be one of the members who traveled to this year’s annual competition taking place in San Francisco. From the plane taking off to the last minute in California, it was a wonderful experience.

We were always either preparing for the next phase of the competition or passing our time with and learning from students from around the world.  The Romanians and Stanford taught us about buttresses. Other schools shared their experiments with damping. Over the week I was in San Francisco, I compiled an extensive list of improvements we could use for next year’s structure. As it so happens, we would need them. Our structure collapsed on its last earthquake. While it was thoroughly disappointing, this is also an exciting event to explore. As next year’s design lead, I will be finding the causal factor in the collapse and guiding my team to fix it.

I finally love what I am doing. I spent too long, wasted too much time, letting my passions die out. I’m just thankful that I found a way to bring them back to life. If you are ever bored with your education, if you ever feel your interest in engineering fading, join a club. It just might change everything.

 

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