Finding Your Niche
On the “Double Bind”: Pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering as a minority woman in a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) has enabled me to navigate the world in a different way. Certainly, there are a myriad of struggles that women in STEM face, ranging from social isolation to a lack of role-models. In the past few decades, institutions have taken to providing and facilitating resources to bridge the historic gap between women and men in STEM. Nonetheless, the issue that persists is the existence of the “double bind”, which refers to the unique challenges endured by minority women as a result of simultaneous racism and sexism.
Personal Background: During middle school,
At my non-secular school, I was urged by teachers to
excel in my studies while maintaining my Arab-Muslim identity. At home, my immigrant parents resonated a similar mantra, with an emphasison “what it means to be a woman”. The prevalence of social media exposed me to ideas which negated the motifs I felt constrained by. Consequently, I became vocal during class discussions and often challenged my peers’ and family’s conservative views. And, so, I was eagerly awaiting my college experience and all the learning opportunities that came with it.
Freshman Year Reality VS Expectations: Going into my first year at Stevens, I knew that I wanted to be involved in as many clubs and activities as possible. When my first College and Arts (CAL) professor divulged that the focus of the class will be identity, I was dismayed to see the underwhelming reaction of my classmates, most of which were white males. My enthusiasm started dwindling as I soon realized I was amongst the minority of students who did not loath the humanities requirements of our engineering degree. Afterall, surely, a twenty-credit semester left no room for frivolous extracurriculars that promoted inclusivity and diversity. This presumption was far from the truth – I became involved with my school’s Student Government Association (SGA), occasionally wrote articles for The Stute, and joined the E-board for College Democrats at Stevens.
A Road to Mentorship: As a college freshman, I felt compelled to identify individuals in my community that would serve as adequate mentors. Sure enough, I found one such mentor in the library: Vicky Orolofsky. Whether it was help with a research paper or a struggle to connect with one of my professors, Orolofsky was eager to share her insights and assistance. My multivariable calculus professor, Mahmood Sohrabi, emerged as another exceptional role-model. Oftentimes, he would try to integrate small anecdotes and jokes to encourage his students to participate and frequent his office hours. Once again, I was able to reach out, initially for math help, and engage in conversations that were pertinent to my background. Although I was not admitted into the Stevens Technical Enrichment Program (STEP), I was able to find a support system there and a sense of belonging.
Final Thoughts: Going into junior year, I now have a better understanding of how to navigate the STEM climate as a minority woman. Looking back at high-school-me, I was utterly committed to my academic performance and partially to my sense of individualism. The way I see it, STEM culture, both in higher education and the professional world, needs to evolve to incorporate and embrace those who were historically left out of it. The global community as a whole stands to benefit from the inclusion and diversification of
About the Author: Alyaa Elkhafif is a mechanical engineering major at Stevens Institute of Technology. Her interest in STEM is coupled with a passion for politics and social issues. As such, she hopes that her internship with EWAAB will provide her with the resources to help other women succeed in both higher education and the professional world. In the future, Alyaa aspires to work in the sustainable energy sector. As of right now, she is pursuing a minor in social science and serving as the president of College Democrats at Stevens.