Today I am proud to bring you the fourth interview for the Engineering Emily Interview Series. There are so many talented female engineers out there with stories to share (could the next story be about you?), and today I’m excited to share mechanical engineer Gracelin Opina’s story with you.
EE: How and when did you decide to become an engineer?
GO: When you apply for colleges, you have to pick a major. I didn’t like the idea of picking “undeclared” then having to “switch into whatever major you decide later” because it sounded risky (what if you don’t get in? what’s plan B? etc.), and I am a very cautious person. I also wanted to finish college in 4 years.
I initially considered business and music, but was convinced by a cousin to consider mechanical engineering because I was “good at math and science.” She had dated a mechanical engineer, so she had gotten to know the field a bit. I did speak with him (he was a mechanical engineer at Boeing at the time) and he said you didn’t use much math and science in the actual job. I was still iffy, but at a roadblock, so I decided to apply for engineering. At that point I was like, “why not!”
And one of those acceptances turned out to be for Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley!
EE: What was your university experience like as an engineering student? What GPA did you have at graduation?
GO: I studied a LOT. I am by no means, “smart” – I really had to work hard for the low grades I got! During my first semester, I thought I could study the same way I did in high school. Wrong. I quickly learned that studying in groups worked best for me. My first 2 years I focused on how to get the answers. My last 2 years I focused on the concepts. By graduation – I had FINALLY reached a 3.0 technical/overall GPA.
I didn’t get my first A (and it was technically an A-) until my junior year, first semester. Not even in a humanities course could I get an A (I’m actually really bad at humanities), or the technical courses with “easy” professors! I didn’t slack – nor am I even capable – in any of my courses and those were the grades I earned.
So, life as an engineering student – I felt it was harder than my friends who had different majors. There were only a handful of non-engineering majors where I felt they studied just as much, if not more than me.
EE: Did you do any internships in engineering during college?
GO: Nope – I never had the GPA requirements for it! Most internships required at least a 3.0. I didn’t have time during the school year anyway (I needed a lot of time to study) and I spent my summers taking classes so I could lighten the load during the school year. Even though I didn’t have an internship, taking classes over the summer was still productive and got me one step closer to my goal – graduating in 4 years with my BS Mechanical Engineering degree.
EE: How did you get your first job?
GO: I applied through a staffing agency. I originally applied for another position, but from there a recruiter had reached out to me so she could start working with me to find me other positions. She found another position for me shortly after we met that suited me, and that was the job I got.
EE: What industry do you work in?
GO: The company I work for manufactures products for the medical, aerospace, marine, oil & gas, and defense industries.
EE: What has been your career path from graduation up to today?
GO: In the company I currently work for (and have worked there the past 4 years), the engineering department does all kinds of engineering. I have experienced many kinds of engineering – quality, design, manufacturing, reliability, and process. I have stayed on an engineering career path but I have also tried to “enhance” my career with non-engineering experience/education that can open up doors for me down the line.
I have taken a project management and Six Sigma Green Belt course outside of work, and a Six Sigma Lean/ Black Belt course as part of work training. I have also taken numerous opportunities at work to get some experience and practice in leadership (leading teams), supervising (supervising & mentoring engineering interns), and management (managing projects & other processes/systems not directly related to engineering). At this point, I am trying to focus more on furthering/advancing my engineering skills.
EE: Have you had to move for work? Have you travelled for work, and if so where?
GO: I have never had to move, but I have traveled about 10 times. All to Florida. Once to Orlando for a conference. Then Daytona beach two times, for another conference and for training. Then, all in one year, I travelled 7 times, 7 months in a row, for Six Sigma Black Belt training. I feel lucky (knock on wood) that the worst of my traveling experience was having to run from one plane to another during a layover!
EE: What has been your best experience as an engineer?
GO: This is hard, and I don’t know if this answer even counts, but I’d just say it’s so gratifying!
Knowing where our products go, how they are used and how I am doing my part to help others! We had some electromechanical power transfer switches that were used on the Atlas V rocket that launched the Mars Rover mission. Our products were also used to help search for surviving victims of the Malaysia Flight crash.
I also really enjoy collaboration. We can learn so much from each other. This is what also drew me into the engineering, because I heard engineers work in teams a lot. I’ve also really enjoyed mentoring our engineering interns. I count mentoring as one of my best experiences because some concepts that I teach the interns I’ve struggled with myself in the past, and for me to be able to teach it to them means I have mastered it! I also learn even more by teaching others, when we have figure out answers to questions together!
EE: What has been your most challenging experience as an engineer?
GO: When calculations, theory, testing and expectations do NOT align with real life/real processes! It is challenging answering questions such as “how”, “why”, “what if” and “what else”.
EE: How do you balance career and home life?
GO: Right now my “home life” is consumed by wedding planning (9 month engagement & 5 more months to go!) & adjusting/learning to be a homeowner. It has been really hard balancing these two with work, but I’ve been managing by balancing everything else outside of these 3 things.
EE: What advice do you have for someone interested in engineering/working moms?
GO: I can’t give advice in regards to working moms since I am not a mother yet (I need that advice myself, when the time comes!). But for someone interested in the engineering major – don’t let college scare you. The schooling is difficult, and is incredibly challenging, but when it comes to the working world – companies really just want you to work hard. However, the hours can also be long (50+ hour weeks), so you also have to decide if that life is for you. I really like what I do, but as you grow up, life gets demanding in other areas!
EE: Any other information or stories you’d like to share?
GO: This has been my experience entering the working world as a recent graduate with no internship experience: just be ready to work hard. There is still a lot in life that has yet to come and I’m sure in 4 more years my answers will be way different. However I’m sure this is called “growth” and I enjoy it!
Thank you Gracelin for your honest interview. Gracelin’s story is very inspiring because she struggled in the beginning of engineering school (as I did too, and I think many of us do), but she stuck with it. Perseverance and hard work are so important if you want to become an engineer. And even without the “all important” internship experience Gracelin was able to find a job she loves.
I really admire how Gracelin has experienced working in many engineering disciplines and also is taking the initiative to develop her skills for a management career path. It is never too early to start working towards management if that is your long-term goal, and mentoring interns like Gracelin has done is a great place to start. As Gracelin said, mentoring also helps develop and give you confidence in your own technical skills when you have to teach others.
We wish you lots of love and happiness at your upcoming wedding. Even though it seems overwhelming to figure out how to balance it all (work, wedding, new house), somehow we all always find a way. Please comment below if you have a question or comment for Gracelin or me. If you or someone you know is interested in being featured in an upcoming interview for the Engineering Emily Interview Series please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.