At CU Denver, incoming undergraduate engineering students have the option to join the Engineering Learning Community (ELC). In the ELC, students take three classes as a cohort: math, English, and first-year design. In recent years, the ELC has grown to include a layered peer mentorship program. The main goal of the ELC is to build community among students at a largely commuter campus, with the hope that this sense of community will increase student GPAs, retention rates, STEM identity, and sense of connectedness to the campus. We asked Anna Osborne, a current junior in mechanical engineering who participated in the ELC, to reflect on her journey as an engineer. In her narrative, below, she discusses several intersecting support systems that have guided her development as an engineer. Of particular interest is the way she discusses the role of her communities, including the ELC, in persevering through the more difficult academic and personal periods of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anna says: Looking at my life, I can see the traits I’ve taken from my parents. My dad always works hard in whatever project he’s doing, something that multiple people have told me about my own work in school. My mom works in the STEM field as a project manager, and with a major in mechanical engineering and a minor in leadership studies, I seem to be following a similar path.
My journey with higher education started, like most people’s, in the K-12 system. My favorite subject in school was math; I never had trouble with it, and I can remember I was often helping the kids around me. My love of math was the biggest factor in choosing a STEM major. Many teachers and friends noted that they could picture me in a STEM career, which gave me the motivation to pursue engineering. I had many choices of universities to attend, and I ended up choosing CU Denver.
My experience at university itself has been defined by the people I’ve been able to have in my life. My parents wanted to make sure I’d join programs that would help provide me community. They knew I’d need help because I was making the huge cultural shift of a graduating high school class of 53 people to a college campus in the heart of Colorado’s capital city. I was able to join a few communities that helped me feel like a part of campus even as a first-year student.
The Engineering Learning Community (ELC) has been one of the best communities I’ve joined. As in the name, one of the major focuses of the ELC is building community in a new environment. The first friends I ever made outside of high school were from the ELC. ELC students attend classes together, a fact that became invaluable when taking in content and even more so when studying. We could form groups who were all in class together and keep each other accountable. The first-year students also received mentoring, which became a major resource for mitigating stress and planning for future semesters. I had straight A’s coming out of my first semester of college, thanks in part to having a community whose express purpose was helping me succeed.
I also joined other communities when I entered college that were major contributors to my success as a student. CU Denver’s University Honors and Leadership program (UHL) is one that is also dedicated to building a community for students. I spent lots of time in their study house, getting advice and help from students who had taken the core classes that I found myself in. The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) provided opportunities to connect to many parts of campus and network with professionals, which I wouldn’t have done on my own. Joining communities and building support systems with them early on was a key feature in my pursuit of an engineering education.
A major shift in my story has been the COVID 19 pandemic. In spring 2020, my second semester of college, there was a dramatic shift into learning in an online format. It came with many technical difficulties (learning to function on Zoom, some teachers giving us radio silence, studying in a new space full-time), but one of the biggest hardships was no longer having immediate access to community. Before the pandemic, I would sit for hours and write papers in the UHL house among other students. I could talk to people before classes and bond with them on campus. It’s little things in the environment of a school that make you feel like a student that simply disappeared when we went online. After the pandemic, I had to adjust to learning alone at my desk, all the time, every day.
I didn’t have the proximity of my communities anymore, but I still received support from the parts of them I’d attached myself to. The friend groups I made stayed strong in group chats and online study groups. Sinking into depression was a common occurrence for people in the first months of the pandemic, but the calls and online movie nights that I could attend with classmates and friends helped me dissipate the loneliness that weighed on me during lockdown. The faculty who knew me made sure to not leave me stuck in the conditions of the pandemic; one professor even got me a job assisting in her research with the ELC. I’d made connections in my life that made all the difference in pushing through our online semesters. I know people who took gap years from college because online learning felt more like they’d gotten kicked out of school than shifted learning approaches. I stayed in school during 2020 because, despite the physical distance I had from my campus, I’d brought the most important parts with me home. The support I had made all the difference.
So far, that’s been my engineering story. It feels incomplete since it is still unfolding. The future is still a little uncertain; there’s a chance that we may have to move online again. But I know that whatever happens next in my engineering journey, I will continue to have support from all directions for whatever comes next.