I was born in Istanbul, Turkey. My father was a retired Turkish naval officer and I grew up on naval bases. My family sacrificed to educate me and my brother who is a medical doctor. Without an education, you can’t do anything. In Turkey, they kill each other to get a college degree. I attended elementary school early and learned to read early, a rarity in Turkey. These were French schools, and I spoke French before I spoke English.
I was inspired by my math teacher in middle school who patiently explained the subject so that it made sense. Understanding math meant getting good grades, which reinforced my hopes for the future, my positive attitude and that of my family. My husband supported me coming to this country, putting me first before his own career, even sleeping on the floor at the college when I had to work all night.
My challenges were both professional and personal when I arrived in the United States. I began my engineering doctorate here in 1994 without ever having seen a computer. I ended up working day and night in the computer lab. Eventually, I became a pioneer of on-line learning and was invited to stay for post-doctoral work. I now have dual citizenship in Turkey and the United States.
When I became an assistant professor at UTC in 1999, I was one of the youngest faculty members. I soon discovered that I was pregnant. I persevered and didn’t miss a day of work with either my first or second child. I achieved tenure, became a Department Head, and then Assistant Dean. I’m now the first international and first woman to be Interim Dean at the College of Engineering and Computer Science.
My path to this position was shaped early in my career when I started tutoring. I love teaching STEM. I try to always keep learning and share the best of my knowledge of Math, Physics, and Chemistry. I worked briefly in the private sector, but returned to my first love: teaching students to understand, not be scared, and to think positively about their future.
There will be many exciting developments in STEM for students in the next decade. One of those developments is a major trend in the corporate world that emphasizes team work. Employers now need not only STEM skills, but also soft skills that can be applied to team building and leadership development. In addition, there is a need for cross-over expertise and for the flexibility to do multi- tasking. Management positions will require these skills at all levels, whether on the manufacturing floor, with vendors, partners, clients, and community leaders.
STEM fields are our future and young people should open their eyes to the emerging opportunities that STEM education can bring them. Young women in particular should follow the emerging trends closely. They can combine a STEM education with the decision-making, communication, and sensitivity skills that are so often nurtured in women since childhood. Women can digest data into a human context and consider their audience more frequently, anticipate the response for more effective communication, and customize their approach for better results. Women are in excellent position to combine their people skills with technical skills and increase number and variety of their future career opportunities.
Dr. Neslihan Alp is the former Interim Dean: UTC College of Engineering and Computer Sciences
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