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Freshman Women in Engineering Get Ahead of the Curve At WIE Orientation

Engineering freshman waiting for WIE Orientation to begin.
Engineering freshman waiting for WIE Orientation to begin.

August 28, 2018

Avoiding the chaos of campus move-in day, 275 female freshman engineering students participated in the 16th annual WIE (Women in Engineering) Orientation on August 21st–23rd. Sure, moving in early was a nice perk—they got to avoid being stuck waiting with mom and dad in a long line to unload their car at the dorm. However, most girls would admit that wasn’t their main reason for coming. They hoped to get acquainted with campus, find out about their major and resources available to them, and to start building community so they might see a familiar face the first day of class.

Engineering freshman play a game of Kahoot during the first morning of Orientation.
Engineering freshman play a game of Kahoot during the first morning of Orientation.

Up from the 262 participants last year, the 275 attendees were part of the largest group of incoming female engineering students ever to enroll at Illinois: 25% of the freshman class. Helping to make the event possible were the sponsors: Texas Instruments (TI), Abbott, Caterpillar, and Brian and Sophie Leung.

During the first morning of WIE Orientation, Dean Sue Larson shares a creative talk comparing college to  hiking (you come prepared, you'll encounter highs and lows, you must embrace the challenges, etc.).
During the first morning of WIE Orientation, Dean Sue Larson shares a creative talk comparing college to hiking (you come prepared, you'll encounter highs and lows, you must embrace the challenges, etc.).

Hosted by Engineering’s WIE program, the event was organized by three co-coordinators: Siobhan Fox, a rising senior in Systems Engineering and Design; Elizabeth Sanders, a fifth year Chemical Engineering senior on track to graduate in December, and MechSE junior Samantha Moran, along with help from WIE Director Angie Wolters, Academic Advisor and WIE Program Coordinator Brooke Newell, and Engineering Assistant Dean Sue Larson.

Aerospace Engineering freshman Zoe Zuzzio.
Aerospace Engineering freshman Zoe Zuzzio.

Why attend WIE orientation? Co-coordinator Sanders says seeing a familiar face is the #1 benefit: “Just being able to form at least one connection. You'll know at least one face that you can recognize on campus, and they'll probably be in your health class, or your physics class.”

While Aerospace Engineering freshman Zoe Zuzzio admits that, “Early move-in was a really nice bonus!” she acknowledges, “I just wanted to connect with some classmates before I came to school so I'd be a little bit more comfortable within my classes and within my major.” Reporting that she made a couple of friends during orientation, she says, "It's been really nice to meet everyone. And since we have a small major too, you can instantly meet everybody there.” Her favorite thing about orientation was probably the first day. “We ate pizza, and then we sort of talked together, just learning about everyone, and where they came from. It was just a really neat experience.”

Freshmen Stephanie Tancs and Briyanka Balakumar during one of the Thursday morning workshops.
Freshmen Stephanie Tancs and Briyanka Balakumar during one of the Thursday morning workshops.

Industrial Engineering freshman Briyanka Balakumar wanted to “meet some really cool people who are in my major so they'd be like kind of along the same schedule as me, and it'd be fun to kind of explore college before all the chaos got here."

Megan Bardee, a freshman in Mechanical Engineering, reports:
"I knew that women are a minority in engineering, and I thought it'd be a fun experience to meet a lot more people in my degree and just get to know campus a lot more.” Bardee says her favorite thing was just walking around campus and seeing the huge groups and a lot of diversity. “Getting to experience that for the next four years is going to be a lot of fun!” she admits.

Co-coordinator Siobhan Fox believes the #1 benefit of attending WIE orientation is “Feeling comfortable on campus…just coming on campus and giving yourself a few days to relax and remind yourself, 'It's all going to be ok!'

WIE Orientation Co-coordinators: (left to right) MechSE junior Samantha Moran; Elizabeth Sanders, a fifth year Chemical Engineering  senior set to graduate in December; and Siobhan Fox, a rising senior in Systems  Engineering and Design.
WIE Orientation Co-coordinators: (left to right) MechSE junior Samantha Moran; Elizabeth Sanders, a fifth year Chemical Engineering senior set to graduate in December; and Siobhan Fox, a rising senior in Systems Engineering and Design.

Key to helping newcomers feel comfortable was getting to know upperclassmen— women who had been in their shoes not that long ago. So from the moment orientation began to the final hours, “older and wiser” female engineering students in the freshmen’s majors showed the newbies the ropes. Plus, the hope was that these mentors would remain a resource once orientation was over.

“I reached out to my mentor when I was signing up for classes,” Sanders shares. “So I think that's really important, that you know one person who is an upperclassman, so you have support; you have advice, you know where you can go to get advice for your major specifically.“

“Four years in a place that you've never been before, all alone, can be kind of intimidating for a lot of people,” adds Fox. “But having three days where there are so many upperclassmen telling you, 'You're going to be ok, and we're going to help you get through this, and everybody in this room, everybody in this first lecture hall is going to get through it together,’ I think, is a really reassuring thing to hear as a freshman.”

A Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering (NPRE) mentor (right) explains some information about their major to an NPRE freshman.
A Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering (NPRE) mentor (right) explains some information about their major to an NPRE freshman.

So to start developing those relationships, mentors had dinner with freshmen the first night, escorted them to the different venues, and even shared tips about their major during the Departmental Breakout Session, a new event added in 2018 based on feedback from last year’s participants who felt they hadn’t gotten a chance to really dive into their major.

“They still felt really confused about a lot of different things, or there were questions that they didn't get answered,” Fox explains. So this year’s mentors presented a summary of highlights about their majors: classes/professors that were really enjoyable; popular RSOs (Registered Student Organizations) in their departments, etc. This session was intended to feature the mentors—upperclassmen who could give the freshmen the scoop from a students’ viewpoint.

"We want the students' perspective,” Sanders says. “I think it's really beneficial for incoming students and prospective students to get a student perspective of what a major is, and what the classes are, because there's a different kind of relationship there.” The idea was that the freshmen could relate to students a little bit more, or just in a different way, whereas the newcomers might be more nervous with faculty. “So we really want to create a more comfortable space to discuss how to be really successful in the major…coming from a student. I think that's something the freshmen will really latch on to."

MatSE Mentor, Abbey Nkansah.
MatSE Mentor, Abbey Nkansah.

MatSE mentor, sophomore Abbey Nkansah, thought the major breakout sessions this year were a great idea, “just to give the girls the opportunity to bond, have some close-knit time with the mentors” who could “answer their questions and kind of ease their anxiety and some of their nervousness about this year.” Nkansah, who did WIE as a freshman last year, reports that she found it very useful in finding friendships with the girls, so she “wanted to help facilitate and try to give that same experience to the girls this year."

Interacting with the mentors was Industrial Engineering freshman Briyanka Balakumar’s big take-away from orientation: “ Honestly, what I think I'm going to take away most is just the mentors; they're really helpful, and I think gaining the knowledge from them, that's going to help me. Because honestly, before coming here, I didn't know a lot about U of I and what to do in all of these situations.”

Having shared their wisdom at the breakout sessions, during the closing minutes, mentors then encouraged the freshmen to jot down two questions to ask when they relocated to their departments for the next activity—lunch with faculty and staff.

Jenny Amos (second from left) speaking to Bioengineering freshman at the departmental lunch.
Jenny Amos (second from left) speaking to Bioengineering freshman at the departmental lunch.

The departmental lunch was particularly meaningful for computer engineering freshman Stephanie Tancs, who called it: “a really good way to meet people, make connections with staff and other people I’m going to be working with in the future.” Regarding the overall benefit of WIE orientation, Tancs says, “I felt like it was a really good way to make friends early on and to get experiences that I'm going to need to be successful in the College and to help with the transition.”

Peppered throughout orientation were guest speakers who currently work as engineers in industry, including a couple of alumnae who could share from their perspectives as former students. For instance, one Keynote Speaker was Amy Doroff, who graduated from Systems Engineering and Design (previously called General Engineering), and currently works for Whirlpool. Frequently involved with WIE throughout her years as an alumna, she was back on campus to encourage newcomers to be relentless during their time at Illinois, citing three instances where it had paid off when she was a student.

Keynote Speaker, Amy Doroff, in front of the Quintessential Engineer statue.
Keynote Speaker, Amy Doroff, in front of the Quintessential Engineer statue.

For instance, Doroff encouraged newcomers feeling overwhelmed during class to stay in the room and count to 10 (even if they must do so continually to get through the period). Regarding relationships, she advised the freshmen to not just tolerate those who are different, but relentlessly embrace new cultures and experiences, and especially to try new things that matter to someone else. The third piece of advice was this: your time on campus is not just about studying, but being a whole person.

Thursday morning Keynote Speaker Kristin Brown from Abbott.
Thursday morning Keynote Speaker Kristin Brown from Abbott.

Another alumna, Athena Lin, who graduated from MatSE and currently works for TI, presented a workshop about taking charge of one’s own education.

Also at WIE orientation were representatives from corporate sponsors, so freshmen would learn about the companies, view college from their different perspectives, and also interface with some companies right off the bat. These folks shared during plenary sessions, at the Company Fair during the Resource Tour, and during Thursday morning workshops. For instance, Kristin Brown from Abbott shared the Thursday morning Keynote, at the Company Fair, as well as a workshop session, “Making the Most of Your Internship.”

Don DeCoste and Gretchen Adams ignite a gas-filled bubble during the  chemistry demo.
Don DeCoste and Gretchen Adams ignite a gas-filled bubble during the chemistry demo.

Advice to new students was even couched in chemistry-flavored slapstick. New students got a big bang, both figuratively and literally, out of the Chemistry Demo by Chemistry Professor Don DeCoste and Gretchen Adams (presently Associate Dean of Applied Health Sciences). Their show featured numerous chemical reactions that burned, glowed, or even exploded—garnering lots of laughter. Then, while the freshmen’s mouths were open in hilarity (or even incredulity), the two would insert sage tidbits of wisdom about how to make it as a college student—gleaned from years of watching new students make rookie mistakes. Their recommendations included some no-brainers. Go to class! Go to office hours if you’re struggling! Even more down-to-earth advice included: eat, get enough sleep, exercise, and…don’t neglect grooming!

Another new activity was the College Resource Exploration Tour on Wednesday afternoon. During this tour, groups of students rotated through five different resources. Sanders says the goal in having the girls visit these locations was that, hopefully, “physically going to these locations, they'll maybe have less anxiety or less nervousness about going the first time, because they've already been there, and they've met the people in these places."

An Engineering  Career Services representative shares with freshmen about how to take advantage of their resources, including the upcoming Engineering Career Fair.
An Engineering Career Services representative shares with freshmen about how to take advantage of their resources, including the upcoming Engineering Career Fair.

At ECS (Engineering Career Services), students learned about job fairs, meeting recruiters, and getting help with their resumes. At CARE (the Center for Academic Resources in Engineering), students learned about getting help academically, such as via tutoring, and study spaces. In fact, CARE was one resource Briyanka Balakumar, a freshman in Industrial Engineering, believed she would use: “Definitely the CARE tutoring center in the Grainger Library. I think that's something I'm going to utilize a lot.”

The third resource was a company fair featuring representatives from Abbott, TI, Caterpillar, and Whirlpool, so freshmen could hear straight from the horse’s mouth what companies are seeking in interns and later employees. To learn about study-abroad options, participants visited IPENG (International Programs in Engineering). The final resource was the Office of Undergrad Research, where freshmen could learn about getting involved in research during their tenure at Illinois.

Orientation participants enjoy frozen lemonade from Einsteins.
Orientation participants enjoy frozen lemonade from Einsteins.

Regarding undergraduate research, freshman Emily Kyle found the information gleaned during orientation “really interesting, and…really useful because, prior to what we heard during the lunch, I heard, 'Ask your professors about research.' But I like knowing I can just go on the faculty website and just find it that way.”

Sandwiched in between these learning opportunities was a stop at the Illini Union for some refreshments—frozen lemonade from Einsteins—one of the highlights of the day for the co-coordinators (and hopefully, the freshmen too!).

Orientation participants chill as they wait for the next workshop to begin on Thursday morning.
Orientation participants chill as they wait for the next workshop to begin on Thursday morning.

Thursday morning’s workshops featured how-to’s about campus life, such as how to get involved (RSOs, Undergraduate Research), how to communicate (All Things Google, Awesome Apps), and how to find a job (Making the Most of Your Internship, Why Freshmen Should Attend Recruiting Events, and Internships). Plus, how to get around campus was a popular topic, featuring the standing-room-only “Bus System” presentation. Also during the workshops, Angie Wolters, Brooke Newell, and Dean Sue Larson were on hand to do a workshop about advising.

Above: A freshman prepares to enjoy the s'more she just made at Wednesday night's bonfire.
Above: A freshman prepares to enjoy the s'more she just made at Wednesday night's bonfire.

Below: A freshman balances an Oreo cookie on her forehead during a minute-to-win-it game. Below: A freshman balances an Oreo cookie on her forehead during a minute-to-win-it game.

With freshmen’s brains stuffed full of information, resources, and advice, the coordinators tried to schedule numerous social events too. According to Fox, the goal was to “have an even balance between, 'Ok, sometimes you gotta' work and learn things, but sometimes you gotta' relax and have fun!'”

Tuesday night at the Union featured bowling, pizza, crafts, and board games. On Tuesday and Wednesday, there was fun with technology: During the Tuesday morning session was a trivia contest using the Kahoot website. On Tuesday and Wednesday, WIE had permission to take over the University’s Snapchat account.

A group of freshmen and mentors enjoy s'mores (and faux s'mores).
A group of freshmen and mentors enjoy s'mores (and faux s'mores).

At Wednesday night’s bonfire, the girls tie-dyed their Texas Instruments t-shirts (purchased by money very generously donated by TI). Plus, girls could make s’mores, play sports and try out several “minute-to-win-it games. One game involved the participant somehow getting an Oreo cookie from her forehead and into her mouth—without using her hands.

A mentor shows off her tie-dyed Texas Instruments t-shirt.
A mentor shows off her tie-dyed Texas Instruments t-shirt.

Regarding the Bonfire, Fox says the idea was, “You've learned a lot about college today. But ultimately, you don't need to be stressed about it all the time. Yeah, you're going to have to work hard here, but you also have to enjoy yourself and hang out with your friends and meet people along the way!”

Another goal of orientation was to help the girls become familiar with the campus: “I think there's so much benefit for the students to be interfacing with their departments and interfacing with the upper-class mentors in the space that they're going to be at,” shares Sanders. “So that way, when they're done with orientation, they feel like they know where they are, and they know about the space and this community that they have in the physical location.”

Getting familiar with campus was a motivation for MechSE freshman Emily Kyle from Arlington Heights, who shares some of her main reasons for coming to orientation:

MechSE freshmen Emily Kyle and Megan Bardee wait for the Engineering Career Services presentation to start.
MechSE freshmen Emily Kyle and Megan Bardee wait for the Engineering Career Services presentation to start.

"To get to know the campus more and really get to know about my support network when I'm down here, and just so I'd feel more comfortable with the campus before classes start.” As a result of attending, she reports feeling a lot more comfortable. “I do. I feel like I’m starting to get a grasp of the huge campus, and I kinda' know where I am. I’m not quite there yet, but I'm getting better."

Most mentors signed up to participate because they wanted to give back. For instance, Diana Slate, a rising senior in Bioengineering, shares why she did Orientation:

WIE orientation mentors Diana Slate  and Heather Zelko.
WIE orientation mentors Diana Slate and Heather Zelko.

“When I was a freshman, I came to campus, and I was really scared. There were just so many people…opportunities. I came from a small high school. So I was really looking forward to making connections in a smaller community. Being able to be a mentor now, I can help facilitate those communications, look out for girls who are scared and need a little extra help and be there. Because everyone deserves to have someone who cares about them here on campus.”

Another mentor, rising BioE junior Heather Zelko, wanted, “to give girls a chance to ask questions of upperclassmen.  “I remember when I came to WIE orientation I was so scared. I didn't even know we were actually going to get to meet upperclassmen, and I had so many questions about what Bioengineering was like...what campus was like…So I felt it was just a chance to give back and do the same thing that a lot of people did for me to help me be comfortable on campus.”

During the introductory session, Women in Engineering director Angie Wolters introduces the new book she and Laura Hahn wrote featuring <em>Illinois</em> Engineering women.
During the introductory session, Women in Engineering director Angie Wolters introduces the new book she and Laura Hahn wrote featuring Illinois Engineering women.

She admits one of her big questions was, “How do you NOT act like a freshman so people don't look at you weird when you're walking around the quad and things like that!” Did she learn how to not act like a freshman? She responds yes, and indicates, ‘Don’t ask where the Illini Union is when you’re standing right next to it, and things like that!”

Like the mentors, the co-coordinators received so much through orientation as freshmen that they too wanted to pay it forward.

Left to right: WIE Orientation Co-coordinators Siobhan Fox, Elizabeth Sanders, and Samantha Moran interact with the freshmen during Tuesday morning's introductory session.
Left to right: WIE Orientation Co-coordinators Siobhan Fox, Elizabeth Sanders, and Samantha Moran interact with the freshmen during Tuesday morning's introductory session.

“I think it helped me to find a very strong community here when I was first a freshman,” Fox admits. “And I think the way that they welcome new people to campus is really inspiring and has helped me to remain motivated in college and helped me connect to the resources that I needed.” She adds that since Women in Engineering has provided her so much, she wants to give back to it: “Orientation was one of my favorite activities that I attended, so this is the perfect activity to give back to.”

Co-coordinators, Elizabeth Sanders (right) and Siobhan Fox (left) in front of the Engineering Hall sign.
Co-coordinators, Elizabeth Sanders (right) and Siobhan Fox (left) in front of the Engineering Hall sign.

Similarly, Sanders wanted to “Hopefully provide an event where these freshmen can find someone they can sit by in class, or find someone they can do their first homework assignment with, and ask a questions. I think it's really important for freshmen to have that really great experience coming in to make their transition a little bit stressful.”

The two also agree that one huge benefit of orientation is the sense of solidarity it gives newcomers.

Fox acknowledges: “Having all of these incoming women show up at an event where there are 300+ women engineering students coming, they kind of see that, and they're like, ‘Wow! There is a really big support network, and there are all these women in Engineering!’”

“It's very empowering!” adds Sanders.


Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative

More: Engineering, WIE, Women in STEM, 2018

For additional I-STEM articles about WIE Camp, see:


Above: WIE Orientation participants plug their ears in anticipation of a really loud noise during the Chemistry Demo.

Below: Gretchen Adams prepares to expand a cute little marshmallow figure during the Chemistry Demo as an example of how not to get stressed out as a student.Gretchen Adams