Susan Thomas Schlett ’84

profile2DEGREE: B.S. in engineering

JOB TITLE: Senior mechanical test engineer, Sikorsky Aircraft (1984-1999); membership chair, Society of Women Engineers – Wisconsin

FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: Graduating! You have to understand that I was the only woman in my graduating class to receive an engineering degree. I experienced a very challenging four years of study, and I was somewhat shy and did not interact with my male classmates, which made it that much more difficult.

What is your role at the Society of Women Engineers? I recently served as SWE’s membership committee chair for the whole 30,000-member organization. I led a committee that included members from around the country and two international members: one in Canada and one in Qatar. At the moment, I am still on the committee and I am also the membership chair for my local Wisconsin section of SWE, which has more than 200 members.

How do you think more young women can be encouraged to pursue careers in STEM fields? Encouraging women to pursue careers in STEM fields starts at an early age. We still seem to have a certain stigma in this country about women entering engineering; hence, of all the working engineers in the United States, we are lucky if 15 percent of those are women. That is an insanely low number. When I graduated from Trinity, that number was 8 percent. Engineering is a great profession, but we need to do a better job in promoting it. When I was growing up, my dad worked his entire career at Pratt & Whitney as an engineer. I always would ask him what he did at his job, and he would enthusiastically answer with an explanation that included lots of acronyms and words I did not comprehend. So I walked away not truly understanding engineering until I got to Sikorsky. I was fortunate that I loved math and science and stayed with engineering, despite the fuzzy vision, and I learned that I wanted to be able to explain engineering to someone of any age, from kindergarten on up. To explain engineering is challenging because it touches virtually every part of our lives. Tell kids we are problem solvers, and you may get some funny looks. I believe hands-on programs are one of the best ways to encourage young people to pursue engineering. This could be in the form of robotics clubs, Girl Scout badge workshops, Project Lead the Way efforts in school, and similar programs.

What are some of the challenges for women in engineering, and how have you confronted them? Some of the challenges for women in engineering would be the lack of flexibility in work schedules (although that continues to improve) and the difficulty in remaining current in your field during periods of unemployment. I chose to stay home as I raised my family and continue to do so because that was the right choice for me and my family. I tell everyone I am home “engineering my family.” I have been continuously active with SWE for more than 30 years and will continue to do so (I am a life member of SWE). If I had chosen to go back into engineering, I would try to be creative in constructing a job that would fit my employer’s needs as well as mine and those of my family.

What do you find most rewarding about your work? The most rewarding thing about the work I did with Sikorsky was knowing that we were producing such great products and that those helicopters were helping do good work around the world. The most rewarding thing about the work I do now is teaching my three young children and watching them learn and grow. In addition, being a mentor and teacher to many potential engineers is rewarding as well.

How did your experience at Trinity College prepare you for your career path? It prepared me well. The faculty and administration could not have been more supportive of me in my decision to study engineering. I owe great thanks to professors such as August Sapega, Joseph Bronzino, and David Ahlgren, who were members of SWE when I was attending Trinity. They understood that you did not need to be a woman in order to be a member of SWE – you just needed to be on board with the goals of wanting to see more women in engineering classes and in engineering jobs. They had the vision to team up with the local Hartford section of SWE, and we were able to charter an SWE section at Trinity College. I was the first SWE section president at Trinity in 1984. The faculty and SWE were instrumental in preparing me for my career path.