It was me, many years ago! Yes, at the age of three I sat in an engineering classroom, made up entirely of male students. It wasn’t my choice, I was too young to decide then; however I can’t forget that particular moment is my life, as I recall the details, carefully recounted to me by my mother. This story also reveals one of the main sources of my choice for a career in STEM, as guided and inspired by my mother.
My mother was a technical language teacher at the National Advanced School of Public works in Yaoundé. As a working class mother of four children, she ran a busy schedule. I being the youngest then, could tolerate no other company than my mother’s, and she was left without any other choice than taking me along with her to class.
Once in the classroom she gave me a seat at the back of the class where I did some coloring and painting. Being very curios at 3, every now and then, I will try to read what she wrote on the board and also listen attentively to what she said, thought I did not seem to understand anything. I noticed that during her lessons, my mother used many technical terms that I had never heard at home or even read in any of my story books. This was very strange to me. I wondered and began concluding that she was modifying or creating another kind of language.
One day I decided to copy down some of the words at the back page of my note book. I am not sure I copied the spellings of the words correctly. Latter in the evening at home after supper I went close to her with my note book in my hand and told her that I wanted to know the meaning of words such as: concrete, excavator, bulldozer, plastering, finishing ... and others that I can no longer remember. She was astonished, looking at me straight in my face she shouted out “This is not your level… go pick up your story book”. I did not move, but my eyes were watery. She then pulled me closer to herself. I gained confidence and asked: “Mum are these words found in the dictionary…?”
Again I was back in her school and seated next to one of her students as usual. Curious enough, I asked him to explain the meaning of one of the words I had written down. Suddenly, he started laughing in an uncontrollable manner to the point that my mother had to pause the lesson and ask him what the matter was.
He replied hilariously: “Madam your baby will become a boy someday!”
“Why, if I should ask” replied my mom “She is writing all these big technical words in her book!” he said mockingly. Then, the entire class joined in with a roar of laughter.
My mother explained to me that no matter how much she demonstrated to them that there is no field restricted to a specific sex, they always denied and ended up in a heated class debate.
That didn’t stop her from bringing me to her lessons, despite the murmuring when she moved into the classroom with me. She told me she could actually hear her students say: “boy-girl engineer!”
At home, my mother took upon herself to teach me the new words using the Technical Dictionary. I did not really understand what the words truly meant, however I was satisfied. Luckily the dictionary had pictures. I was very happy when she showed me the pictures representing the words. Again I had never seen any of these things around me. My mother noticed that I was now very eager to discover them in real life. So she took me on a trip to a work site that was supervised by her colleague who was an engineer. We spent 5 hours exploring the site.
That is how I began developing my passion for STEM. Latter on after I obtained my advanced level certificate, I told her that I wanted to become an engineer.
I returned to the same school where I was the “baby engineer” 17 years after, to study for a degree in civil engineering.
To confirm that all what my mother had told me was true, one of my lecturers jokingly called me “baby engineer!” astonished, I asked him how he got to know about that nickname. He explained that my mother had taught him and that is how we used to call the little girl she brought along during her lessons.
I was the only girl in his class and he admitted that it was challenging for him to teach a girl in a field he always considered for men. He particularly mentioned that even as a kid I had overcome the gender stereotypes attached the field of engineering.
Special thanks to my mother who is very happy to see the amazing things I am doing such as working hard to get many more women to follow my footsteps in STEM.
My dear sisters, nothing is impossible. Never lose your motivation and have no limit to your inspirations. Yes! You can make it, if you are determined.