Ishita Tandon and Olivia Kolenc are both PhD candidates for the Biomedical Engineering Department at the University of Arkansas. This past year they attended SWE’s yearly conference for women in California. Below they discuss networking benefits, memorable experiences, leadership knowledge, and awareness and ability to navigate challenges faced by minorities within the field of engineering.

Olivia Kolenc:

In November of 2019, I had the privilege of traveling to California to attend WE19, the Society of Women Engineers’ (SWE) largest conference to date. WE19 was held at the Anaheim Convention Center, filled with over 16,000 people ready to “Live, Learn, and Lead.”

I had yet to be a part of an event focused on women and diversity, so it was thrilling and inspiring to be surrounded by so many women and men dedicated to empowering women and minorities in STEM. I explored what WE19 had to offer, including sessions on a wide range of educational and professional development topics, an enormous career fair with over 400 attending organizations, special group meetings, and invitation-only programs such as SWE’s Collegiate Leadership Institute (CLI).

I have been a member of SWE since 2018 and currently serve as the vice-chair of the graduate student group on campus, GradSWE. Through my involvement with GradSWE, I was selected as one of 108 participants in SWE’s 2019 CLI. CLI is a program offered at each annual conference focused on helping undergraduate and graduate students develop their career and leadership skills.

The CLI program began with networking with other participants during WE19’s opening ice cream social and over dinner, where I got to know a few other graduate students. After having the opportunity to explore the conference, we were assigned mentees participating in the SWE Next High School Leadership Academy. I briefly mentored Alyssa, a high school sophomore. We spent a few hours together talking about her interest in robotics, the college application process, potential career paths, and interacting with industry representatives at the career fair.

On the final day of the conference, I attended a day-long CLI leadership colloquium. The colloquium sessions centered on providing us a framework to evaluate and discuss our strengths and weaknesses to learn what skills we as individuals needed to target to best enhance our educations and careers. We examined six competencies leaders need to develop for success and worked in groups to assess our progress in these areas. We also reflected on conventional leadership strategies, how they are currently changing, and how we can form a personal leadership structure based on leadership habits that work with our strengths. The colloquium culminated in small-table networking sessions with SWE leadership in various professional positions within, and outside, engineering.

Being part of CLI made attending WE19 much more significant to me. Not only did I garner so much new information on navigating the current challenges women and minorities face through the conference, but I also learned valuable strategies I can use to improve my own leadership abilities. After WE19, I was excited and energized to share what I learned through CLI and now have plans to conduct a leadership workshop for graduate students through GradSWE.


Ishita Tandon:

Four of the officers from Uark Graduate SWE RSO attended the We19, the annual conference of SWE. I have been involved with Grad SWE at Uark since 2018. I first served as the communications chair in the inaugural committee and then as the financial chair this past year. We have dedicated our RSO to hold professional and personal development events and social/ networking gatherings for Uark Students.

Some of the events which stood out to me were “I Have a PhD in Engineering – Now What?”, “Mentoring in Graduate School Panel”, “Strategies for Applying for a Job in Academia”. While I was more interested in professional development workshops, We19 offered leadership development, collegiate competitions, career fairs and social nights too. I had the opportunity to know a lot about industry careers in R&D after pursuing PhD. I also had the chance to meet and network with the SWE graduate leadership team and discuss with them opportunities for involvement and collaborations. 

This also opened the door for me to apply to the We Local Collegiate competitions. I was shortlisted as one of the 5 finalists to present my research in form of a talk and a poster at the We Local held in Salt Lake City in February, 2020. I was honored with $250 award, certificate and SWE swag for the same. The We Local, Salt Lake had a small group of men and women focused on professional development and networking. There were many workshops and seminars offered including “to post doc or not to post doc”, “resume workshop”, “flexibility in communication styles and a lot more.

Apart from deep appreciation and feedback offered on research presentations, I had two packed days of learning tips and tricks for enhancing my career, our SWE group and networking and making friends as well. The socials had professional, collegiate members and the leadership and organizing team, all enjoying food, games and good conversations. Indeed, the keynote speeches about an undergraduate’s journey from internship in NASA to Miss America pageant and a crew member of “The Maiden” which was featured in the documentary of the same name in 2018, were highly motivating. This whole experience inspired me more towards being involved in student organizations, enhance my leadership skills, appreciate the opportunities coming our way and strive for more. I hope to stay connected with the SWE strive towards further extending these opportunities to more women and underrepresented students from UARK.