From First Gen Female to College to STEM Career Role Model: One Woman's Path

11/09/2015 09:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
2015-11-09-1447080650-1097009-md_0Aej7fhJLE.jpg (Courtesy NREL)

Women account for only 32% of the degrees awarded in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Female, first-generation students are at an additional disadvantage, even though they are just as likely to be interested in STEM as their non-first-generation counterparts, but less likely to remain in the field or finish their degree. Bobi Garrett, a first-generation female student who is now the Deputy Lab Director of Strategic Programs and Partnerships at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), is an excellent role model for first-generation college students and women interested in STEM careers.

She attributes her success both to her own drive and to the support she received from family, friends, and teachers. Though neither of her parents could afford to finish their undergraduate degrees, she says, "it was always a given in our household that my sisters and I would go to college. It wasn't a commandment, but an assumption." Her teachers in math, chemistry and physics classes supported and engaged her love and talent for math and science. She showed such promise in high school that during her senior year, the head of Montana State University's Chemical Engineering Department personally called her to offer a scholarship. Bobi accepted right away, even though she had little familiarity with the field, and had no immediate role models who had followed the path she was pursuing. Attending MSU (instead of the University of Montana, in her hometown) meant leaving her strong support system behind, so she relied on her sense of adventure and love of trying new things.

Following from her experiences, Bobi has plenty of advice for first-generation women in STEM. If she had the opportunity to re-do her undergraduate experience, she would not be "in such a rush to get through the required courses to graduate as quickly as possible." She would take more advantage of "opportunities to broaden and deepen" her knowledge. Current students should not be afraid to ask for help -- from their professors and from mentors -- or to explore a variety of careers, since passion for their field "opens the door for both study and career opportunities." With that passion, she says, "everything else will fall into place."

Today, Bobi is glad that there are more women and more calls for "diversity in all its forms" in STEM classrooms and workplaces. She is also optimistic about the improved "sources of information and stronger focus on STEM education" that have emerged since she started college in 1972. Programs that help freshmen meet peers and mentors before classes start can help smooth the "significant transition to enter STEM fields," especially for first-generation female students, she believes.

Bobi and NREL foresee many openings for skilled STEM candidates in the near future, and both recognize that "a diverse and talented workforce is a competitive advantage," as well as the benefits for students and their families of investing in a STEM degree. NREL is responding with programs that attract underrepresented ethnic and gender groups to STEM and particularly to careers in renewable energy. Because teachers and parents are vital to students' success, NREL provides curriculum suggestions for hands-on projects to help them teach and engage students at the elementary, middle and high school levels. NREL is also involved in the Department of Energy's National Science Bowl, and hosts competitions in which students build model solar-, hydrogen-, and battery-powered cars. These hands-on experiences inspire interest in STEM at an early age. The company also encourages undergraduate and graduate students to apply for internships and thesis research support.

With examples like Bobi's to follow, growing mentorship programs, and innovative opportunities for early and sustained STEM experience, STEM opportunities for first-generation women are rapidly improving.