February 21, 2019 | Hannah Ebeling

Five female students stand in front of a background filled with logos of major corporations.
In October 2018, Calvin students attended the SWE National Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Fewer than 20 percent off all bachelor's degrees in engineering were awarded to women in the United States, according to a 2015 report by the American Society of Engineering Education.

At Calvin College, students view that statistic as an opportunity.

Taking action

“If you are not doing anything about the current state of things, you are saying that it’s okay,” said Lillie Spackman, a junior engineering major at Calvin College.

Spackman is the student president of Calvin's Society of Women Engineers (SWE) chapter. SWE is a national organization that gives women engineers a unique place and voice within the engineering industry. Its mission is to empower women to achieve full potential in careers as engineers and leaders and to demonstrate the value of diversity and inclusion--something Calvin engineering students and professors alike felt important when deciding to begin a new iteration of SWE in 2014.

Now in its fourth year at Calvin, SWE supports women in engineering, while making an impact on a much wider community.

Leveraging resources 

As a member of SWE, students receive access to resources, specific scholarship applications, and have the possibility of participating in a national conference with engineering professionals. For the past three years, SWE has sent students to the national conference, covering nearly all expenses. “We are growing in the number of students we are able to send every year,” said Spackman.

“SWE at Calvin—like a lot of things—is what you make of it. This year especially we focused a lot on professional development. We had a resume development seminar, a mock interview seminar, and a seminar about the fundamentals of the engineering exam that many students take,” said Spackman. “We also had a seminar on workplace etiquette, specifically in regards to harassment in the workplace and how to deal with that, as well as a networking dinner with some of our professional contacts.”

Leveraging their network of contacts for students is a big part of what SWE leadership does. “When companies are looking for interns they can reach out to SWE or when a student is looking for a professional to shadow, we can help them with that,” said Spackman. “The ability to leverage the knowledge of those that are more experienced than us is something that makes SWE worthwhile for a lot of students.”

Spackman noted that SWE has provided a great way for many engineering students to build contacts and get to know professionals in their field, something she believes will be essential in future job or internship placements.

Fostering an inclusive environment

“We have had really amazing support from faculty—both men and women,” said Spackman. Professors in the engineering department regularly speak at events and make a point to provide SWE with constructive feedback. “We are very big on student and faculty feedback,” she said. “We are all about seeing a need and finding a way to fill that need.” While the students on the leadership team can identify some needs, to be able to really understand what is beneficial to students, Spackman believes they must be hearing from students directly. 

The seminars, meetings, and events SWE holds are open to anyone. “Something I am really passionate about as SWE [president] is growing its male advocacy for women,” said Spackman. “As far as inclusivity goes, we want anybody and everybody. The misnomer about the Society of Women Engineers is that it [the organization] is only for women and only for engineers, but the reality is that it’s about supporting women who are pursuing an engineering degree.”

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