MentorNet protégé Emily Moser says there's nothing unusual about her mentor. She has a job she likes at a good company. She's married and keeps in touch with friends and family. She has interests outside of work.
And that's exactly why Moser says Christa Lucas, a transportation engineer, is a good mentor.
"Christa's normal," says Moser. "She's a totally happy, healthy person. That's not the message I first got about being in engineering, where women were supposed to be nerds with no social life. Sure, engineering was totally open for women, but not normal ones."
Lucas's well-rounded profile was a key reason Moser selected her when they matched in fall 2003. Moser was beginning the master's program in structural engineering at Penn State University. Her first semester was difficult. She was having trouble with her advisor, and felt he wasn't interested in her or her work. She was unfamiliar with the power tools and equipment she had to learn to use for her research assistantship. She had a 3.66 undergrad GPA, but the rigorous graduate coursework was challenging
All this came on the heels of a summer internship where she was the only female engineer, and an older male co-worker asked her, "Why would a pretty girl like you go into engineering when you could just marry a doctor?"
Moser felt so low she considered changing fields. "I've noticed that for a lot of girls, if something goes wrong, they think it's their fault," she says. "I struggled with that myself."
Learning to Take Control
Lucas saw similarities between her protégé's situation and that of Katherine Graham, who took over the Washington Post after her husband's death in 1963--with no experience and at a time when female executives were rare. "I just think Emily was feeling a little overwhelmed," Lucas recalls. "We discussed Katherine Graham because every time she changed jobs she didn't know anything and had to learn all over again."
Moser credits Lucas with pulling her through, helping her recognize that she could take control. She spent extra time in the research lab learning to use the equipment. She switched thesis advisors, choosing a female faculty member who was a good mentor and genuinely interested in Moser's work.
Getting Help, Giving Back
Mentoring is important for Lucas, who studied structural engineering as an undergrad and received her master's degree in transportation. She had informal mentors in school and continues to seek out mentoring relationships as a professional. Lucas been a MentorNet mentor since 2000, and promotes mentoring through the Women's Transportation Seminar.
"It's essential," Lucas says. "It's important for me to have mentors and so it's important for me to be a mentor. It's always good to have a sounding board and someone to encourage you--I like having a cheering section and to cheer for other people."
Because Lucas was no longer working in structural engineering, she put her protégé in touch with people who were. "It's like having not one mentor, but a whole web of mentors," says Moser.
Both mentor and protégé see great value in discussing the ordinary stuff of life and work. They email two or three times a month, touching on their personal lives as well as work and school, and plan to maintain the relationship at least until Moser finishes her program in spring 2005.
"It's great to have someone to talk to who can tell you what they're doing on an everyday basis," Moser says. "You go to school and never really see what's happening in the working world; [this makes it] easier to see yourself there."