By Kate Kurtin
Engineering students often defy simple classification, media-fed stereotypes notwithstanding. Undergraduate student Shawna Smith (CMBE) is the very essence of the non-traditional student.
Despite a non-supportive, destructive family dynamic at home, Shawna pushed herself through high school as a straight-A student. Following graduation, she worked and supported herself, but everything changed when she became pregnant with her daughter, Leaonna. “I always wanted to go to college, and once I had my daughter I knew that I had to get going, because there was now another life that I had to take care of,” Shawna explained. Her key to survival was a cross-country move to Connecticut to live with her aunt, who helped her on the path back to school.
“When I was younger, my parents used to tell me, ‘We’ll never be able to put you through school, so make sure you earn good grades so you get scholarships.'” From a young age, Shawna understood that she was responsible for her own future. So, with her five-month old daughter in tow, Shawna left her family and Leaonna’s father behind in Texas to start over in Connecticut. “It was less than a month after September 11th, 2001, so the plane tickets were really cheap,” Shawna said ruefully.
Though being a young mother presented challenges for Shawna in attending college, it was actually beneficial from a financial standpoint: independent of her parents’ finances, she was able to secure needs-based college loans.
Once settled in Connecticut with her aunt, Shawna enrolled in community college. “When I started, I was dead set on pharmacology, but after a few classes I thought that chemical engineering would broaden my options,” Shawna explained. While taking the prerequisite engineering courses, Shawna met her current boyfriend, applied to transfer to UConn’s School of Engineering, and became pregnant for a second time with her son. “I was pregnant going to Thermo 1; it was great! Eight o’clock in the morning three times a week!,” Shawna said laughing.
As a student with enormous parental responsibilities, Shawna has received few breaks from her teachers, and she is appreciative that she is treated just like any other undergraduate. “I have learned self-motivation, time management and organization here. I am grateful for it because that is the real world — nobody is going to take time out to feel sorry for you no matter what is going on. I really think that UConn prepares you well for the real world,” she reflected.
At UConn, Shawna has excelled in her classes and carved out a research niche. “Right now, I am working with fuel cells. This area has really stimulated my interest in working with alternative energy — anything helping the energy crisis would be great,” she says. Currently, Shawna is on track to graduate in May and looks forward to things returning to “normal.” While her long-term plans include continuing her education, she is pragmatic about seeking a personal/professional balance. “I really want to get a master’s degree, because I want to learn more and know more, but I just don’t think my current life and responsibilities will allow for that, especially because I really need to pay bills,” Shawna explained.
Shawna’s story offers ample proof that — with enough resolve, commitment and hard work — the yoke of a poor upbringing and personal challenges can be overcome as we rewrite our destinies.