Before Sue Mentink decided to go into engineering, she had wanted to be a teacher.
Her career path took a diversion into all sorts of interesting areas and she took time to raise her family but now Mentink is enjoying her current job of teaching others who share her interest in math and science.
When she was in school in the 1970s at Michigan Technological University, there were 5,000 men and 500 women studying there. There was only one other woman in Mentink's class who was in the engineering program. The trend doesn't seem to have changed very much since then and Mentink said she thinks more women should be encouraged to go into math and science fields.
Q: Tell me a little bit about what you do at Washington State.
A: Right now I am the coordinator for the mechanical engineering technology program and I teach the mechanical engineering and general engineering classes. Amazingly enough, I love it. As much as I loved being a design engineer, which is what my occupation was when I was working, I really get into teaching students and just encouraging them to keep moving on with their education and their plans and to encourage them to think a little bit bigger than they planned. I enjoy teaching the classes. I teach everything from engineering economics to basic engineering classes to the in-depth technical classes. The students get a wide base of things that they're going to need when they enter the engineering and technology field.
Address: Washington, W.Va.
Family: Husband, John; one son, 22, one daughter, 27.
Education: Bachelor's of science in mechanical engineering from Michigan Technological University.
Occupation: Instructor in Washington State Community College's engineering department, coordinator of the Mechanical Engineering Technology Program.
Q: So why did you decide to go into this particular field?
A: That's kind of a wild story. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to be a teacher. But in the state of Michigan where I am originally from, they had kind of closed all the teaching colleges because they had a glut on the market of teachers so that wasn't really a possibility. I went to a local community college for a couple years and ran across a government flier that talked about engineering and engineering technicians. I thought that would be something I would really enjoy because I really liked math and science. So I talked to one of the advisers and representatives from Michigan Tech. Next thing I knew, I was accepted and off to the middle of nowhere for school. I went to school with 5,000 men and 500 women. There were two women in the mechanical engineering program, including myself. I was definitely out there alone by myself. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was a first generation college student in my family.
Q: What was it about engineering that appealed to you so much?
A: I liked math and science. I was reasonably good at. I had also seen a lot of women in my life who had no education and nowhere to go. If the husband was gone, they had nothing. I knew one woman who had actually married four times in her life and ended up passing away with 19 children. She was a big influence on me going to school. She was kind of like my second mom. She really encouraged me to get that education so I wouldn't have to do what she had to do, which was find a man to marry. I also had an aunt who was an influence. As far as the engineering part, it sounded like something I wanted to do. I wanted a career that guaranteed me a livelihood, especially if I didn't have a husband or lost my husband. I loved the variety. I always had different projects going in different places. I can't think I've ever had a dull moment. There are a lot of opportunities, which is another reason I went into the field. I stayed in engineering for a while but I wanted to have a family.
Q: Talk about that.
A: Back in the 70s and 80s they weren't real receptive to women doing flex hours or anything like that. So when I finally did get pregnant, I left the work field because I wanted to spend time with my baby. That's changed, I think, in the work environment. I was asked several times to come back but they still wanted me full time and as an engineer you're on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week if there's a problem and I couldn't do that with a child. So I stayed home and actually had a lot of fun. I volunteered over at one of the schools to build a playground. I did a lot of volunteer work. When my son was in high school, I started at Washington State as a part-time instructor and eventually full-time. This is my fifth year and I really love it. I wish there was more of me to go around.
Q: Are you happy with the number of women who are interested in engineering?
A: I'm not happy at all with the number of women in engineering. Too many young women are not encouraged in math and science. Right now I have one young lady in my program and I am really trying to push her to go for her bachelors degree. I had one young lady last year go on to pursue a career in petroleum engineering. The numbers have improved over the years but they're still not where they should be. Being in a field with all these men can be very intimidating and it takes a good strength of character. And it helps to find a support system of other women within the field.
Q: What can be done in middle school, high school to get young women interested in this field?
A: Encourage the girls to take math and science and the higher level classes. Encouragement from parents is also needed to help them achieve higher goals. We're really falling behind (as a country) in stressing the importance of math and science. A lot of engineers are coming in from other countries because our schools aren't teaching these things. Connecting schools with industry engineers, inviting the engineers to career days...I did that when I worked for Dupont. There isn't anything in our daily lives that an engineer hasn't been involved with at some point but we don't have nearly the engineers in this country that we need.
Erin O'Neill conducted this interview.