“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
It’s been used to explain why girls need to see female engineers and programmers, and people of color need to see that an African American can be president. While I get the sentiment, I don’t completely agree with the statement. If you have to “see it to be it”, how could Sally Ride have become an astronaut? How could Sandra Day O’Connor become a Supreme Court Justice? How could Oprah become...well...Oprah?
When I was a girl trying to decide what I was going to be when I grew up, I thought I’d be an architect or engineer. I liked math and science and art, my grades were good, and I knew if I wanted to leave my hometown, I needed a degree and a viable career. My high school guidance counselor recommended I check out a secretarial school in FL. (I believe I may have coined the expression WTF back then, although only in my head. It was a Catholic school after all.) After ignoring her, I decided on a 3/2 Engineering program. I took Freshman Physics, fell in love with learning how things worked, and decided on a degree in Physics. I was, like a lot of girls in STEM in the 1980’s, the only girl in many of my classes.
How could I be what I couldn’t see?
I could because of a small group of people who came alongside me and encouraged me. I had two male friends in my classes who did not treat me differently. They inspired me, they built me up, they helped me when I needed it. They made me believe that I could accomplish anything. I had professors who made time for me, who mentored me, who encouraged me to stretch beyond what I thought myself capable of. I didn’t have a roadmap or a female role model. I had people telling me I could do it.
That is why, when I coach FLL, I encourage every kid on the team (especially the girls) to try building a robot or an attachment, and to write a little code. I’ve found that when I coach mixed gender teams, the girls tend to gravitate to the research project and leave the robot design, building, and programming to the boys. Instead, I make sure that the entire team gets to experience all parts of FLL. You never know where a child will find his or her passion and instead of assuming anything based on gender (hello secretarial school), I choose encouragement. Ironically, in writing this I realize that I did become what I saw - I teach, I mentor, I encourage.
Whether you are a coach, mentor, or a team member, I hope you do the same for all of the girls and boys on your team. You never know who might be the next Mae Jemison, the next Laurie Garrett, the next Crystal Huynh, Rachel Hunter, or Erin Mitchell. But you can help them get there. Be encouraging. It’s a beautiful thing.
FIRST coach and parent
This blog was written by Maureen Carrigan, parent of FIRST team members and FLL Coach. If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the schedule.