Self-confidence, Balance and Your “Why” - An Interview with Jasmine Schlichting, One of Harvard’s Graduating Seniors

The women of Harvard are incredibly determined and inspiring. That is especially the case for the women in the STEM fields, which, as many know, have historically been dominated by men. As an engineering student myself, I always love to talk to the women who have jumped into these studies with excitement and determination, and who are not afraid to choose career paths that are as unique as they are important. What’s even more inspiring is how they deal with setbacks and problems, and the lessons they have learned from them. I recently had the chance to speak to one of these women who is a senior at Harvard studying Physics. Read on to hear her take on handling setbacks, engineering at Harvard, and what she’s learned that’s helped her reach this point today.

If I recall correctly, you are a varsity athlete. How do you manage athletics and your academic work?

For context, I was a lightweight rower for 2 years, took time off from school and when I came back to school, I joined the polo team for 1 year. Then my senior year I got several concussions and stopped athletics. I was more structured when I was an athlete, especially when rowing. When you have less time, you get more efficient. It's a sink or swim thing. I'm going to be honest though, when I was rowing, I didn't really manage the two well. I was having a hard time recognizing/accepting I had physically outgrown the lightweight category and was still figuring out how to work smarter, not harder with schoolwork. For me, the first two years of college felt like I was drowning and could barely come up for air. I managed athletics and schoolwork a lot better after my time off because it really helped me gain perspective and center myself. I say this because it feels dishonest for me to talk about managing sports and school without also mentioning that I did not have balance at all for a while. Being an engineer and an athlete are not incompatible. But it is hard and there is no shame in saying you're struggling.

What are your goals? What do you see yourself doing after college?

I have currently accepted an offer to work at Microsoft after college on the kernel team. It's not exactly physics but it is engineering based and I have always considered myself an engineer (I guess engineering at its core is applied physics anyways though). As for other post college plans, vague as it is, I want to continue making things.

How do you think your experience at Harvard as a female physics student/engineer will help you with your future career goal?

This is a hard and easy question to answer. I'm struggling to think of individual parts of my experience that are gendered while also Harvard specific, but I know on the whole, I've had this experience and have a future in STEM because of Harvard. I've been asked condescendingly many times why I didn't go to MIT for engineering. I am an engineer because, not despite, I went to Harvard. This is because Harvard is a liberal arts institution and also offers easy access to engineering and great STEM departments. In high school I was deciding between pursuing international relations and something science-y. I, along with most girls in the US, was not really exposed to or encouraged to pursue engineering growing up. I did have enough awareness to go on some engineering school tours while visiting colleges. But I heard a false notion repeated on most of those tours: that you know from an early age if you want to be an engineer (this idea seemed to be part of the story as to why students are made to apply to engineering programs separately at liberal arts colleges, and why tech institutes are separate all together.) Aside from this being ridiculous because many people still don't know what they want to do when they graduate, it also means that by the time most women are exposed to engineering, it is generally too late to choose it as a career. I had shied away from tech institutes because I wasn't sure if that was for me. Going to Harvard allowed me to take Intro to Mechanical Engineering experimentally. I knew if I hated it the Government department would be waiting for me, and more importantly, I didn't have to apply separately to be an engineer or take classes at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). For many other engineering programs, I would have had to have an impressive high school resume full of robotics or programming or other STEM extracurriculars. Meanwhile, I was a rower, worked at the Philadelphia Zoo, and got a B- in Chemistry; but I was accepted to Harvard and that was enough. I once heard a highly critical podcast by Malcolm Gladwell about how John Paulson should not have donated to Harvard to create SEAS because that money should be spent on schools with less endowment to help even the academic playing field (yes, Harvard should spend more of its endowment imo). But, in developing its engineering program, Harvard IS evening the playing field, for women. Going to Harvard facilitated me being a female Physics student and having a career in STEM.

How do you motivate yourself to stay focused, be it academically or in terms of your career?

Remember why you are doing something instead of focusing too much on what you are doing. Halfway through my undergraduate experience I became super disillusioned with PSETs and was struggling to find the point in going through the motions weekly. I am not super grade motivated, so I needed another reason to be suffering through difficult engineering courses. I probably would have switched majors if I had not taken Jean and John Comaroff's African Studies seminar (big shout out to Harvard's African and African American Studies Department for being incredible and having a bounty of classes that are accessible to non-majors). In the Comaroff seminar, at some point we were reading about Day 0 in South Africa, where Cape Town was about to run out of drinkable water. It really struck a chord for me that a city which borders ocean on two sides was about to run out of drinking water, and I re-realized engineering is important. I also remembered how much I dislike writing papers and I knew SEAS was the right place for me. So, tl:dr, Find your "Why" and let that guide you. Also, branch out in terms of the classes you take, interdisciplinary work is good.

What advice do you have for an aspiring female engineer, especially when she's in the midst of suffering through PSETs and midterms?

The response right before this before kind of answers the question, but also, remember, YOU'RE A BADASS. You are the 10-15% and that's pretty cool. Also, not gender related, go through it with someone else and commiserate. Colloquially, it's just easier to work on assignments together and it feels better when you can complain with people who understand the struggle. Scientifically, it has been proven humans who have more social networks/outlets have lower stress levels and can cope with stressors significantly better. In turn, lower stress levels increase academic performance.

What advice would you give to your younger self, before beginning this college journey?

Just because someone (usually a dude) says something loudly, confidently, and/or insistently doesn't mean it's right. Trust your gut and have faith in your own hard work.

Make time for people; people before PSETs. There is the saying, "love what you do," and yes, hopefully you enjoy your work. But also, your job/PSET/class/etc. will never love you back. When you are sick or going through a breakup or just lonely, your PSET won’t be there for you. Don't let work be where you put all your energy, it's a bad practice that Harvard culture normalizes.

Lastly, you don't always have to accept "no" in bureaucracy settings (I want to emphasize that in most other scenarios you should definitely accept when people say no and being respectful is always necessary) Everyone is human, everyone is counting down the minutes until lunch/break/end of the day. The automatic response for something out of the ordinary is generally "no" because most people do not want to do extra work. But it's ok sometimes to keep pushing, don't let the fear of seeming annoying hold you back from getting things you want and/or need.

Pushing forward in spite of the fear, now that’s a mantra that we all can live by.