Our series on women in engineering closes with this one, tracing the history of San Diego State University’s engineering program through the stories of three alumnae
Though San Diego State had offered degrees in engineering since at least the 1920s, it wasn’t until 1961 that the university officially established the College of Engineering.
The first woman to earn a degree from the new college was Diane Denkler ’61, but women students remained a rarity there for the next decade and a half.
By the mid-‘70s, it was no longer unusual to see at least one female face in the engineering classrooms. According to SDSU alumni records, seven women earned engineering degrees in 1978 and nine in 1979.
But it was often a lonely existence, recalled Christine Rychel, a 1979 civil engineering graduate.
“I do remember feeling like a pioneer in college and pretty much throughout my career,” said Rychel, now a senior supervising engineer with Parsons Brinckerhoff. She is part of the design management team for construction of the Mid-Coast light rail transit project to extend trolley service from Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego to the University City community.
Because she was married and a transfer student, Rychel had little time to socialize on campus, but she formed close friendships with her male study partners.
“The other students and the professors were encouraging,” Rychel said. “The negative experiences happened after graduation, when I was dealing with a different generation in the workplace.”
By the early 1980s, during Peggy Johnson’s time at SDSU, most engineering classes included “a handful” of women.
“We tended to migrate toward each other at breaks and we formed study groups. Often, one of us would buy a bag of candy to share during study sessions. It sort of defined our group,” Johnson said.
“We made a pact to meet on graduation day at the picnic table outside the engineering building. Half of us were to bring something made of chocolate, and the other half were assigned to bring champagne. We totally broke the rules and feasted before joining our Class of 1985 in the College of Engineering graduation ceremony. Nothing could have been sweeter!”
Johnson said the experience of being a woman in a mostly male college taught her a life lesson.
“For the first time, I was a true minority. I experienced firsthand just what that means—not being included in conversations, not being asked to respond in class. I was told by one professor that I was probably not cut out for an engineering degree.
"Ninety percent of the professors were wonderful, but a few were not. That just made me work harder.”
The intolerance Johnson faced shaped her own career in electrical engineering, first at GE, and then at Qualcomm, where she is executive vice president and president of global market development. (Update-August 2015: Johnson is currently executive vice president, business development, for Microsoft Corporation.)
“I appreciate and embrace diversity and I realize the value it brings to the bottom line. Different perspectives inform better decisions.”
Perseverance and play
Fast forward to 1998 and the experience of Daisy Galeana, a “double” minority as a female mechanical engineering student and a Latina.
Galeana came to the university with strong math skills but less-than-fluent English and limited knowledge of mechanical and transport systems. She said SDSU’s student support programs, including the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) and the MESA Engineering Program (MEP), helped guide her through the difficult times.
Not only did Galeana graduate from SDSU, she also completed a master’s degree from the University of Miami. She is now working toward a Ph.D. at UC Riverside while employed full-time as a test engineer for Solar Turbines in San Diego.
More than a decade after her graduation, Galeana’s ties to SDSU remain strong. As Johnson found camaraderie in her female colleagues, Galeana formed bonds with the young men and women in the MESA and MEP programs.
“Engineers didn’t have lot of fun so we made our own,” Galeana recalled. “We did homework as a group, talked about our families and listened to our own music. During finals week, the little MESA office was packed with all of us studying together until we fell asleep on the couches.”
Galeana now serves as vice-chair of SDSU’s MESA Industry Advisory Board and a mentor to students who are first in their families to attend college.
Her goal is to teach part-time while working as an industry executive, “to bring real-world problems to the classroom while smoothing the transition from classroom to industry for Latina students.”
Today, many of the obstacles encountered by early engineering students no longer exist.
Fifteen percent of SDSU’s engineering students are women and the university is classified as a Hispanic-serving institution.
Women students are leaders of Engineers Without Borders and SDSU’s rocket project. They are members of the SDSU chapter of the Society of Women Engineers and Alpha Omega Epsilon, a professional sorority for women studying engineering and the technical sciences.
As more of these women graduate and find jobs in the field, they are changing the face of engineering to one that looks, increasingly, like their own.