Students challenge Michigan Engineers to 'Own It'11/21/2013
“sometimes afraid to voice my own opinion”
“scared of the future”
These phrases and more have been popping up on North Campus this week, being sprawled on whiteboards and T-shirts by Michigan Engineering students. They’re all part of a movement happening by a new student-led group of Michigan Engineers called Own It.
Sporting bright orange buttons and fill-in-the-blank T-shirts, these students have been roaming around campus for the last few months in an effort to spark conversation. The goal: “To challenge everyone to be our most authentic selves, while offering support and affirmation for others to do the same.”
“People have all these layers and experiences that we feel aren’t being shared in the college,” said Nick Clift, a master’s student in electrical engineering systems at the University of Michigan College of Engineering and one of Own It’s co-founders. “As engineers, we’re great technicians, but unfortunately we often get slated as being emotionless or socially awkward. We want to move our culture to a place where we feel at home.”
The new engineering student group, launched this semester, has hit the ground running. A series of posters with phrases like “Why Should I Care?” have been plastered around North Campus, challenging viewers to think about their experiences. Whiteboards were erected on the North Campus Diag with the simple phrases “I am” and “No one knows that I,” offering people an anonymous opportunity to put down their feelings.
Wearing a T-shirt that says “I am willing to keep learning even if I may not know it now,” Kathleen Chou, a senior in materials science and engineering and Own It co-founder, explained how starting Own It has changed her viewpoint at every turn.
“I’ve been amazed every day by how ignorant I am,” said Chou. “Talking to people about what their struggles and accomplishments are is always eye-opening. It’s the things you don’t know you don’t know that can really hurt other people.”
"I’ve been amazed every day by how ignorant I am. Talking to people about what their struggles and accomplishments are is always eye-opening. It’s the things you don’t know you don’t know that can really hurt other people."
Kathleen Chou, co-founder of Own It
The student group is hosting their first event Nov. 21, inviting the engineering community for a discussion on LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer) inclusion in engineering teams. Their inaugural event includes discussions by the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering David C. Munson, Jr., and representatives from Amazon.com and Rockwell Automation on how to create engineering teams that respect and affirm those who identify as LGBTQ.
The group hopes that inviting representatives from corporate engineering companies to come to campus and discuss the issue will help open that door to more conversation.
“I think it’s very ingrained in how we go about our college careers to focus on high GPAs to get into corporate America. But we’re trying to show that it’s about so much more than just grades. It’s about how you contribute to society on a daily basis,” said Michael Baumhart, a senior in materials science and engineering and Own It co-founder. “That’s what we’re shooting for, is to just allow students an opportunity to think about it. If you’re thinking about it, then that’s a step forward.”
While Own It is not the only student group in engineering to tackle social identity and justice issues, they are the first to address it in a more holistic way. Groups such as the Society for Women Engineers (SWE), National Society for Black Engineers (NSBE) and Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (o-STEM) invite students who identify with a particular social identity to join their community and help raise awareness about issues they commonly face. Own It, however, hopes to reach out to the entire community.
“We really envision making it a partnership of ‘allies’ across the college,” said Clift. “Because right now what we see is if NSBE wants to host an event, it will be attended by NSBE members. But we want all people to be involved in our events, and help students recognize that it’s important to understand and respect the identities of their peers, even if they don’t share that same identity.”
Clift, who also studied as an undergraduate in electrical engineering at U-M, says he struggled with coming out as gay while he was here. And he relayed scenarios where people can inadvertently corner someone into an uncomfortable situation. Just asking the simple question of “do you have a girlfriend” forces a homosexual to come out, says Clift, and the person asking isn’t even aware that they’re causing a conflict.
“The thing that makes social identity issues such a problem is that so much of the harm caused by actions is unintentional and goes unobserved,” said Clift. “We need to create an environment where people are okay being vulnerable.”
The group hopes that creating this community can help open the dialogue and allow all students to feel welcome. More than half of engineering students enrolled at U-M do not participate in a group outside of the classroom, and the Own It students believe that social misunderstandings may be at the core of the problem.
“We need to think long and hard about why certain students are disengaging on some level from the community,” said Baumhart. “Getting as many students on board as possible is key. Students who aren’t already putting themselves out there and aren’t engaged – those are the people we really need to talk to and reach out to.”
“Getting as many students on board as possible is key. Students who aren’t already putting themselves out there and aren’t engaged – those are the people we really need to talk to and reach out to.”
Michael Baumhart, co-founder of Own It
While the group is a student-led movement, it won’t work without including faculty and staff in the discussion, they say. That’s why they’re working in close collaboration with the College’s Office of Student Affairs and advisor Angie Farrehi, Assistant Director for Student Health and Wellness Services at the College, to help engage the broader Michigan Engineering community.
Own It is unique in that it’s the only student-focused group taking a very broad look at personal and social responsibility, said Farrehi. It’s offering a safe space for conversations that can be very difficult to be held, and for people to understand how to own both personal and social responsibility.
“That’s part of what makes the name itself so great,” said Farrehi. “The process of ‘owning it’ starts with initiating tough conversations about yourself or others in your community. It also requires each person to take responsibility in initiating the change they want to see—whether it’s a change within themselves or within the broader community.”
The team is also aiming to incorporate social inclusion in the curriculum, and is working with Lorelle Meadows, Assistant Dean for Academic Programs at the College, to start the conversation early with incoming first-year students.
“I love having the support of students to work in this direction,” said Meadows, who is working on a proposal to incorporate social identity and awareness and how each student can contribute to the curriculum for introductory engineering courses. “Michigan has a history of student empowerment, and this is really working to raise awareness of the kinds of experiences students have on this campus that, in a lot of ways may be largely unintentional, but are still hugely upsetting.”
How each student will interpret Own It is the best part of the experience, says Clift. “People are already taking it to a level we never imagined.”"
About Michigan Engineering: The University of Michigan College of Engineering is one of the top engineering schools in the country. Eight academic departments are ranked in the nation's top 10 -- some twice for different programs. Its research budget is one of the largest of any public university. Its faculty and students are making a difference at the frontiers of fields as diverse as nanotechnology, sustainability, healthcare, national security and robotics. They are involved in spacecraft missions across the solar system, and have developed partnerships with automotive industry leaders to transform transportation. Its entrepreneurial culture encourages faculty and students alike to move their innovations beyond the laboratory and into the real world to benefit society. Its alumni base of nearly 70,000 spans the globe.