Back to (Engineering) School

The famous U-M Engineering Arch

Though many years have passed since my days as a U-M engineering student, I nonetheless feel twinges of anxiety at this time of year. Perhaps that’s because some of my back-to-school experiences were so painful (see the “Michigan Man” chapter in my book, “Proving Ground: A Memoir”). Well, as it turns out, I’m going to be speaking to engineering students at U-M Ann Arbor next week, and those familiar twinges are back in full force. This time, though, I’ve decided to put them to use. Drawing on my anxiety-sharpened memory, I’m penning ten points of advice for the young audience, students at the U-M Center for Engineering Diversity and Outreach. I didn’t try to come up with exactly ten points, it just worked out that way. If you would like to add to these points, feel free to do so via the comments below. If I include your advice in my presentation, I’ll credit you, of course!


1. Get in touch with your objectives

Why did you decide to enter the field of engineering? Is it because someone you respect suggested that you go into engineering, or because engineers make good money, or because engineering jobs are plentiful? Those are all good reasons to study engineering, but they are external factors. Do you love to design machines, write software, dismantle things, solve problems? Those are internal factors. Get in touch with what is driving you to be an engineer, because that awareness will help you through the inevitable rough patches.

In my own case, I dreamed since grade school of starting a company that made “electronic stuff.” Long before college, I realized that an electrical engineering education was the best way to achieve that dream.


2. Grasp the course “metadata”

This is something I wish I had done much better during my student days. For each course you take, you should understand what I call the metadata: a) why it is being taught, b) how it applies to the field of engineering, and c) how it will benefit you. Sometimes this is obvious (circuit design, technical writing) and other times it can be downright obscure (linear algebra, modern physics). If you don’t know, you should badger your professor or teaching assistant. Discuss it with your classmates—just don’t be surprised if they don’t know, either. Once you grasp the overall context of the course, your objective should be to fully understand each concept. If you do this, your grade will usually take care of itself. By the way, I still don’t know what was going on in Differential Equations!


3. Be bold!

Don’t let professors, teaching assistants, or fellow students intimidate you. If you have a question, ask it right away. If you don’t get your question answered in class, get it answered outside of class. Don’t put it off. Don’t be embarrassed. If you hear snickers from classmates, ignore them. I used to tell myself: “I’m no dummy, but even if I am, I’m not going to get smart by failing to ask questions.” In one particular class I can recall, I heard snickers in response to some of my questions. I ended up getting an A. Some of my snickering classmates didn’t do so well.


4. Form your “posse”

Develop a group of motivated study/discussion partners—your “posse”—and stick with them. Make sure they are all good, serious students, and seek out high achievers. Reach across racial, ethnic and gender lines—this is what your future workplace will be like, so you may as well get used to it. My two favorite study buddies were a guy from Brazil and a gal from Kuwait.


5. Get a job!

Don’t wait until you graduate to get work experience. Work on campus if you can—perhaps you can even land a job in your department. Definitely seek summer employment, and don’t wait until the last minute. Seriously consider a co-op assignment outside the U.S.  Wouldn’t it be great to experience working in China or France or Ghana?  My co-op experiences at General Motors Institute (GMI, now Kettering University) helped prepare me to start my own company, and my research assistant job in the U-M Bioelectrical Sciences Lab gave me a leg up in the electrical engineering (ECE) department.


6. Get involved

Participate in extracurricular activities that put you in contact with other students on campus, including non-engineering students. Work on the solar car team, volunteer for a charitable organization like Dance Marathon, play in a campus jazz band…there are thousands of such activities on campus, and participating in them is one of the main advantages of attending a big university.


7. Be open to new experiences

One night during my sophomore year at GMI, I stumbled upon an electronic music concert. I was inclined to leave right away, but ended up staying. What I witnessed that night unexpectedly changed the course of my career, and led to the business I eventually started. The lesson: don’t shy away from new experiences. Each one is like a smoldering ember that has the potential to become a brightly burning flame.


8. Control your environment

When I transferred to Michigan as a junior, I found myself in a living situation that was not conducive to success in engineering school. I moved. If you have raucous, disrespectful roommates, or if you are besieged by distractions (pleasant or otherwise), then you must change your situation. Take control! Fix your environment, move, or live in the library.


9. Work your you-know-what off!

Everyone at Michigan is a top-notch student. To excel, you will likely work harder than you have ever worked before. It doesn’t mean you’re not smart or not qualified. Like my buddy and company co-founder Steve Moore used to say all the time, “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.” Steve should know—he achieved an A average in undergrad and grad school, and he worked his butt off doing it.


10. Don’t get cocky

If you succeed in implementing the above nine points, you are probably going to be a top-notch student in the College of Engineering. Don’t let it go to your head—your career journey is just beginning. Be confident, but not cocky. Stay focused on doing a great job from the first day of classes through the last day of finals. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

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