Opportunities abound for women who love science
At first glance, Clark students Tammy Senior and Qi Wu don’t seem terribly similar. One is young even by the standards of Running Start, a program that allows high schoolers to take college courses; the other is coming back to college after serving four years in the military. One has spent her whole life in Vancouver; the other has lived in more countries than she can count on one hand.
But on closer inspection, certain parallels become clear between the two young women: They’re both willing to overcome any challenge to achieve their dreams of careers in the sciences, and so far, they’re succeeding. This month, they have another thing in common: They are Clark College’s 2016 All-Washington Academic Team members, representing the college on a team of 66 stellar students from two-year colleges across the state.
“It is such an honor,” said Senior, sitting with Wu during a break between classes.
“It’s nice for your hard work to be recognized,” adds Wu.
“Yes, you feel like your hard work is finally paying off,” said Senior.
For both determined women, that work includes challenging others’ assumptions and figuring out creative ways to get around obstacles in their educational journeys. Wu’s obstacles began surfacing when she and her mother emigrated from China to the United States. Wu, then a sophomore in high school, struggled to maintain her grades while she learned a new language in a new culture. She also confronted gender stereotypes, as classmates and teachers assumed she would be more interested in subjects like art and the humanities instead of math and science.
“When I was growing up, I was always better in physics and chemistry,” she said. “I like numbers, I like logic. When I came to Clark and took my first engineering course, it was like, ‘Wow, this is where I belong!’”
However, a new hurdle appeared shortly after she first started at Clark in 2009. Wu, whose mother had remarried and had another child, realized her family could not afford to continue to pay for her college education. Hoping to support herself, she enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 2010 as an aviation mechanic, and took every opportunity to earn educational credits and develop new skills—despite the doubts some had of the petite young woman’s abilities.
“When I got transferred to Japan, my supervisor told me, ‘Well, you can do the desk job here, because you’re a girl,’” Wu recalled. “And I said, ‘No. I want to do the job I trained for.’”
Wu said that overall, she’s grateful for the opportunities the military provided her to travel and learn skills. She anticipates that the experience will help in her electrical engineering career. Having returned to Clark, Wu is receiving scholarships, allowing her to save her military education benefits for the more-expensive, four-year institutions she hopes to attend in order to earn a master’s degree. She also works in Clark’s scholarship office and spends weekends training as a Naval Reservist.
Boredom to curiosity
Like Wu, Senior’s challenges also began in high school, but they were of a different nature: She felt stifled. “I wasn’t being challenged enough,” she recalls. “I took a class at Clark and found it so much better.”
Senior’s family couldn’t afford to pay for a full load of college classes. When the 14-year-old visited Clark’s scholarship office, she discovered she was too young to qualify for financial aid or scholarship opportunities. However, the scholarship staff suggested another option: she could enroll in Running Start, the Washington State program that allows eligible high school juniors and seniors to take college classes tuition-free. The only problem was that Senior was a ninth grader. In the end, she skipped the 10th grade in order to qualify and enrolled at Clark as a full-time student at age 15.
“It was definitely interesting,” Senior, now 17 and set to graduate in the spring, said with a grin. “But Clark’s pretty welcoming, and I really thrived in the community here.”
Senior is maintaining a 4.0 GPA while taking classes in Clark’s challenging Honors Program, volunteering with her church, teaching private music lessons and serving as the vice president of leadership for Clark’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for two-year colleges. She’ll be 17 when she enters a university—potentially with junior standing, depending on where she attends.
“People ask me, ‘Why don’t you enjoy your high school years?’” Senior said. “But I’m a planner. I think ahead. My mother wasn’t able to finish school because she started a family. I know I have a lot of school ahead of me and this is a way to speed things up.”
Senior wants to be a neurologist, a goal she set after her beloved grandmother suffered a series of debilitating strokes in 2014. Like Wu, Senior faced some skepticism about her ambitions.
“When I tell people I want to pursue a career in neurology, sometimes they look at me strangely and say, ‘Oh, why don’t you go into nursing, so you have time for a family?’” she said. “But I know I can do it. I can have a family. I can have the career of my choice. I just have to work hard. And you know, they would never tell a male student that.”
Both students say they appreciate the support they’ve found at Clark. “I like the diversity here,” says Wu, a first-generation college student. “Engineering Professor Izad [Khormae] is from Iran. My physics teacher is from Russia. I think half the STEM faculty are women. And then in my classes I’ve met a few veterans. You get so many different experiences here, different cultures.”
Wu and Senior were honored for their achievements at the All-Washington Academic Team induction ceremony on March 24, 2016, in Olympia. The All-Washington Academic Team, a program of Phi Theta Kappa, recognizes exemplary students from Washington’s two-year colleges for their academic achievement and community service. Team members are eligible for numerous scholarships, including transfer scholarships at most four-year universities in the state.
Those transfer scholarships may or may not come in handy: While both women are strongly considering the University of Washington, they do have some out-of-state schools in their sights. Wu hopes to be accepted to University of California, Berkeley. Senior has had interviews with Stanford University in California and Harvard University in Massachusetts.
“I think I’m going to go to a good school, no matter what,” said Wu. “I’m really excited to do something bigger with my life.”
Hannah Erickson is Clark College’s communications specialist