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UMaine Society of Women Engineers discusses what it means to be female in STEM


Members of the University of Maine's chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). From left to right: Tamara Thomson (Vice President), Maryam Kashkooli (Treasurer), Jade Baumrind (Secretary), Meagan Lewis (President). Photo courtesy Meagan Lewis.
Members of the University of Maine’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). From left to right: Tamara Thomson (Vice President), Maryam Kashkooli (Treasurer), Jade Baumrind (Secretary), Meagan Lewis (President). Photo courtesy Meagan Lewis.

Last Saturday, Feb. 6, the University of Maine’s Society of Women Engineers (SWE) held its annual formal open to students of all majors.

Founded in 1950, SWE is a nonprofit educational and service organization that empowers women to succeed and advance in the field of engineering.

UMaine’s SWE chapter has close to 50 members. Not all of the members have to be female, nor do they have to be engineers — SWE is open to all students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Maryam Kashkooli, a second-year mathematics and economics student, has been a part of SWE since her freshman year. Her sister Kimia Kashkooli, who was the president of SWE last year, is now pursuing a medical degree at Tufts University School of Medicine.  

“Kimia [had] been in SWE since her freshman year. I would often see her planning the formals and conference trips, so I followed her footsteps,” Maryam Kashkooli said.

Each year, SWE recognizes up to three female students in Maine high schools who, for over three years, have excelled in science and mathematics. Members of UMaine’s SWE chapter host a brunch at the Buchanan Alumni House where the outstanding students are given a Certificate of Merit award. Women engineers from different companies attend this brunch and talk about what it is like to be a woman engineer in a professional field.

“It was really cool to hear their stories,” Michelle Hale, recipient of a Certificate of Merit award and a first-year civil engineering student, said. “It made me realize that I am not going to be the only woman engineer out there.”

Hale hopes to remain a part of SWE until she graduates, like many of SWE alumni and seniors, including President Meagan Lewis, who has been a member since her freshman year. Lewis shared that the organization has greatly evolved in the last four years.

“When I became a part of SWE, there were three or four freshmen, and 10 to 20 upperclassmen. Over the last two years, we have doubled that number,” Lewis said.

“You are not just a member who is sitting there for a meeting,” Bethany Schulberg, a third-year bioengineering student and a member of SWE, said.

UMaine’s SWE chapter works closely with the Challenger Learning Center of Maine in Bangor. Named after the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds into its flight in 1986, this center encourages young students to pursue higher education in the areas of mathematics and science.

“It was really cool to see elementary and middle school kids excited about stuff that we were excited about when we were their age,” Hannah Morgan, a third-year bioengineering student, said.

Every year, national SWE holds the largest conference and career fair for women in the fields of STEM. More than 8,000 women attended the 2015 conference held in Nashville, Tenn. in October. Ten members of UMaine’s SWE chapter attended the conference, and received an Outstanding Collegiate Section Award at the Silver Level, according to a UMaine news release. This award recognizes collegiate sections that are active in meeting SWE’s strategic goals of professional excellence, globalization and advocacy.

“It [the award] was announced at the closing ceremony, and we didn’t know we were getting it,” Kashkooli said. “We were shocked but very excited,” she added.

In 2011, 18.4 percent of female students nationwide pursued an undergraduate engineering degree, according to American Society for Engineering Education.

“There is definitely a lot more pressure on women to show their skills and prove themselves as a leader, more so than men,” Schulberg shared.

When asked what it is like to pursue a career in a male-dominated field, Maryam Kashkooli said “it can be intimidating at times.” She shared that most of her classes have only two or three females, and the rest are males.

“Often times, guys think that they are better in those [STEM] subjects, but I participate and answer questions in class, so they see that I am just as good as them. You shouldn’t be afraid to show what you know, and you also shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. I ask the guys in my class for help with homework,” Kashkooli added.

“Proving yourself is a little frustrating, but it’s a challenge that I think many girls face in these types of fields. I hope that eventually it won’t matter whether you are a male or female professional in a STEM field,” Kashkooli said.

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