Music has been a part of my life from a very young age, and my interest in instruments came from my mother. As I always say, it has been my goal to be a mini-me of my mother ever since I can remember. I consciously and subconsciously have watched her every move and locked them in my mind so that I know what I need to do when I become her age. So, it's not surprise that I wanted to play guitar because my mom played guitar.

Mom played classical guitar in college, and she was really good. By the time I was born she had stopped playing, but I had a cassette tape of a song she recorded and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I told her that I wanted to play guitar, and she said no. She told me that I had to take piano first, and if after a year of piano I still wanted to play guitar, then I could take lessons. She was absolutely right. Piano had everything, literally, and musically it was incredibly smart of her to make that deal with me. Piano gave me the foundation for all my future musical instruments and music knowledge (and almost twenty years later, I still have never played guitar).

So piano lessons started at the age of nine. My mom took them with me. She bought a piano and the teacher would come to our house: one lesson for me followed by one lesson for her. I advanced quickly, and after only a few weeks I had jumped out of the books that my teacher brought for me and immediately started playing the very last song (and therefore the most difficult) in the book for my mom. My teacher was so upset. She told me that I wasn't allowed to play more advanced songs yet, and that I had to do the lesson plan that she had laid out for me. Needless to say, I soon found another teacher.

My second teacher would turn out to be my last piano teacher (as of writing this blog entry that is), and my most favorite music teacher ever. She had a grand piano in her living room - basically, her living room was a grand piano, and we would drive to her house for lessons. I quickly found out that I could play by ear, which can be a nightmare for teachers since children who play by ear learn to use this to cheat out of reading the notes - I was no exception. This teacher didn't let me get away with anything. It took her one week to realize what I was doing, and she would find songs that I couldn't listen to before hand and refused to play a sample of them until she heard me play it first. She was always one step ahead of me, and as far as I wanted to go in music, she was there to push me even further. I had to stop my lessons with her when we moved, but I'll never forget what she taught me.

Along with piano, I chose to play flute in the fifth grade. Everyone had to choose an instrument, but there wasn't that much of a choice: flute, trumpet, drums, and a few other odds and ends. I liked flute. I found myself catapulted to one of the best players in the class. I actually stuck with my flute, while most kids stopped playing after one, maybe two years. I played up until the eighth grade, but it was the band that made me quit. I wasn't a band geek, although all of my high school friends were, and I didn't have the passion to be in a marching band. I still have my flute somewhere, but with all the moves I did as a child (I've lost count over the years, but the last time I did count we had lived in twelve different houses and I had gone to sixteen different schools...something like that) I lost the flute in a drawer somewhere. I need a new one, so maybe one day I'll pick it back up again, but I still remember how to play.

In the band in middle school I wanted to explore my love of everything bass. I was obsessed with bass. I learned the left hand of all of my piano songs before the melody, my cd player was constantly set to the highest bass setting, and of course my headphones had to follow suite. It was halfway during the school year that I asked my band teacher if I could play bari sax. He said no. I have no idea why. I loved baritone sax; it was badass. I made a joke to him and said, "Fine, if I can't play bari sax, then I'll play the tuba." He said ok. Next day, I dragged a tuba home. My mom couldn't believe it when I brought it in. It was huge and disgusting. I loved the sound that it made, but the whole spit valve thing was, well, gross. I liked that I could be very loud, but I didn't care for how much I stood out with it. After a performance in front of the school (which everyone knows is embarrassing) I ended up quitting the band completely. I never picked up the tuba again.

I'm Russian Orthodox, so my church had groups that showcased the traditional Russian heritage. It's no surprise then that they had a balalaika orchestra. I was a member of our Russian dance group, and during our festival (held once a year) we would dance and the orchestra would play after us. I was listening to them one day when it came to my mind that 'I could do that too'.  So, I went to the director and asked if I could join.

Obviously, the first thing I did was wanted to play the contrabass. The director said no. I never did understand why she didn't want me to play contrabass. She never really told me. All of her daughters played. But, being told no is the story of my life. She said I had to play prima balalaika, so I said ok. There were only three people in the entire orchestra who could read music beside myself, so all of our music was numbered with fret numbers for the rest of the group. Unfortunately, due to this, I never did learn how to read music for my balalaika (I could figure it out, of course, but it wasn't natural because I never had to practice, so it would take me a minute or two). Again (story of my life) I found myself catapulted as one of the best players in the group. Most of the group was much (much) older than I...alright, let's put it this way, I was by far the youngest (I believe I was eleven when I started playing). I was second chair in the orchestra, and was told that the only reason I wasn't first chair is because it would be rude to put an eleven year old kid over an almost eighty year old woman who had been in the orchestra for years. Even thinking about it now, it doesn't make much sense, but the lady who was first chair was, to this day, one of the coolest women I've ever had the pleasure of knowing, so I didn't mind. I got to be a part of the special, smaller orchestra for smaller events (they only took a few of the best players). We even got to play in a castle for a private birthday party :)

In 2000, at the age of thirteen, I went with my orchestra to the Balalaika and Domra Association of America (BDAA) convention in Pittsburgh, PA. I applied for and won a scholarship to pay for the trip and hotel. I was the youngest person there. I had the most amazing time and was blessed to have met some of the most talented and genuinely wonderful people in the balalaika world. We had workshops with master teachers from Russia, and at the end of the week there was a 100 piece orchestra that would play a concert at the Byham Theater. Again, being the youngest and also featured as a scholarship winner, I got a lot of attention. It was neat to be a part of a jam session for the first time and to meet musicians who played beyond what I thought was possible.

BDAA Convention 2000 - Pittsburgh, PA
(I circled myself in red - click to enlarge)

During this convention the relationship between me and my director became strained. It was similar to the story of my first piano teacher: I wanted to fly, but according to her, I wasn't allowed. I made friends with the director of the Washington D.C. orchestra, who was also directing the 100 piece orchestra at the end. While we were preparing for the big finale, he let me play his contrabass during the practice because he knew how much I loved it. I couldn't believe it: the head director's contrabass and I got to play it. It was the most memorable music experience I've had so far. They even took a picture of me playing it which ended up in their newsletter. My director was pissed to say the least. It was also sometime after this that I had been asked why our orchestra was the only one who had our domras on the right side and the balalaikas on the left, when it should be the opposite since the left ear hears treble and the right ear hears bass (for the audience). I asked my director why (because I didn't know either), but she took it as an insult. I remember that shortly after this she introduced me to another player as their "prima donna". I had never heard this term before, but when I told my mom (since I had taken it as a compliment) she was furious and explained to me that it is far from something nice to say. I felt very hurt and started to cry. I couldn't understand why my director was so against me. We finished out the week with success. The announcer during the final performance at the Byham even grabbed me and let me be a part of a "humor piece" where we were "talking" on stage as the curtain came up and therefore he had failed to notice that the audience was waiting for him to announce. Again, my director was livid. I got to sign autographs for people at the end of the week, and one of the other players got my address and sent me a cassette of an orchestra with some really nice contrabass parts, along with a loving message to follow my heart and play what I wanted. As for me, it was the end of my time in the orchestra.

In high school I took a hiatus from instruments. I played as I could, but I wanted a break. In college I started back up again with my piano. I was upset at myself for how poorly I played after not practicing for a few years, but I quickly came back. I never did much after that with my balalaika, only playing a little to not be too rusty if ever asked to play, and the same with the flute (until I lost in in a drawer).

My junior year of college I decided that I wanted to take voice lessons. I had been singing in the choir of my church since we moved there (and through all of our moves after, we were fortunate enough to stay at the same church) and I loved singing. The choir director was amazing at everything music - I mean amazing - and I wanted to make him proud because I looked up to him. I signed up for lessons at the university with a Brazilian opera singer. I didn't know that I was actually taking opera until I got there (I just thought "hey, voice, cool") but I didn't mind since I considered opera to be the piano of voice: it contains everything you'll ever need to know, and if you can do it, you can do anything. I liked it and I learned a lot, but I wasn't the best student. My engineering studies would take up practice time, and other times I just wasn't motivated enough. There were weeks where I wouldn't practice and I performed well, and other weeks where I practiced every day and my teacher would yell at me for being worse than the week before. It was frustrating, so I only stuck with it for a year. I gave up on voice. I never wanted to be a famous singer, if anything I wanted to be a backup dancer, and I decided that I would much rather either dance or play an instrument for someone than sing.

Ever since I can remember I have had a special place in my heart for celtic music. For that reason, I've always wanted to visit Ireland. I don't know what it is about this type of music, but for me it stood out from the rest. I adore baroque, almost anything in a minor chord, swing, blues, arabic and indian music, but celtic just has that special something of which I just can't get enough. I was always going to Irish festivals. It was at one of these festivals where I stumbled upon the band that would become my all time favorite: Scythian.

I honestly can't say enough in words about these guys. If you haven't heard them, youtube or itunes, if you haven't seen them, go. They fulfill everything that I could want musically: they are classically trained, they are talented as all get out, they're damned good, and they mix celtic rock with other genres: be it Fiddler on the Roof to traditional Russian and Ukrainian folk songs to 70s rock music to classical. It's like listening to a comedy routine that has intellectual innuendoes mixed in to test your knowledge - it's pleasing in all respects and everyone can enjoy it whether they know the reference or not. It was after one of their concerts where it dawned on me: I love celtic music, I'm obsessed with fiddle, so why don't I play?

I bought my first fiddle (well, it was actually a violin) from a music store near us. I didn't know anything about it, but the people there were really nice. I took home some books and started trying to teach myself. It didn't take long to realize that this instrument was nothing like anything I had played before and that I needed professional help to get started. I e-mailed the violin professors at the college and explained exactly what type of music I was looking to play. One of them told me that he had the perfect person for me: a former student who had dedicated her life to old time fiddle playing and had made quite a name for herself in the area. He was right, she was perfect. I took lessons with her for a year, and I appreciated every minute of it. It was the first time I had studied an instrument with someone who wasn't "superior" to me, in that I wasn't a little child and she wasn't an adult in the sense that she wasn't much older than I was. It was an interesting and very fulfilling relationship as teacher and student, and she gave me exactly what I wanted: fiddle, in all its raw beauty. We stopped our lessons together because we were both moving away, but I still talk with her from time to time. If we ever find ourselves in the same area, I will definitely get a lesson with her.

Since then I sold my violin and bought an old violin on ebay. I took it to a luthier recommended to me by my teacher and he transformed it into a proper fiddle. I adore my instrument, and I literally take it with me wherever I go. I play every day, practicing Irish tunes in the hopes that one day I'll find that guitar and drum player to form my own celtic rock band ;)
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It wouldn't be right to talk about my undergrad without mentioning my co-op experience. It taught me a lot about life, and I still use what I learned there today.

Since my university is known for its engineering college, it's not surprising that the engineering college itself has its own co-op office, separate to that of the university co-op program. The ladies in this office work tirelessly all year round setting up relationships with companies from all over the United States and internationally, meeting with each and every engineering student to polish his/her resume, and planning and hosting massive career fairs that have so many companies in attendance that they not only have to be held more than once a year, but also take up all of the space in our student union and cannot hold every company who wishes to come and find bright new workers. (The co-op office also keeps lists of all the students for future use, so if a past graduate finds himself/herself out of work, they can just return to the university and be put back on the list to get in contact with companies who are hiring.) An engineering track has two possibilities: co-op and non co-op. A non co-op is simple: 4 years of school, then you graduate. The co-op option increases the bachelor to 5 years, and starting with the summer semester between sophomore and junior year, the student starts a co-op position with a company and then rotates every other semester school, co-op, school, co-op, until graduation. I chose co-op. (Oh, I forgot to mention, the co-op is paid, too)

I began like all students, attending the career fair. It was daunting. There were so many companies! It was nerve racking too: these "meet and greets" were like mini-interviews, and interviews are stressful no matter what the situation. You got a highly organized list of all the companies in attendance, who was looking for what: co-op, full time, etc; and then there was a map. A week before the fair you had time to highlight which companies were looking for your major, which companies were looking for co-ops, where they would be seated, and then researching their company to see if you would even be interested. The day of the fair, it was go time.

I ran around to all of the companies with whom I wished to interview. After the fair, the companies would contact the co-op office and give a list of students they would like to see, or if they were coming to campus for on-campus interviews, we had the ability to sign up for interviews. I had something like 13 interviews - it was exhausting. My first interview was with a very well known tire company. I hated them. I have to laugh when I say that, but it was true. I don't know why I hated them. I guess maybe it was because they were this big business and they ran a big business model and I found no human quality to them. Why did I interview with them? Simple: for practice. Why not start off interviews with an interview you don't really care about? It gives you time to practice, see how the interviewing works, and get your nerves straightened out. The guy doing the interview was very young and I thought he was a bit cocky. Ok, so cocky isn't exactly a technical term, but that's how I would describe him.

It's worth mentioning that the one thing I refused to do was dress up for the interviews. I have always been a rebel about dress code. You could say that I am almost completely against any kind of dress code. I always snuck around the dress code when I went to private school: I would have two earrings in each ear instead of one or I would wear nail polish. Yes, I always got in trouble, but I refused to give in. Even when I worked at the Cadillac dealer putting files away, I almost never followed their dress code (which was extremely conservative - and 100% against my personality). Also, getting me in trouble over my dress is pretty much the only way someone can offend me. I won't get offended over anything really, but if you tell me that I'm "inappropriate" because of something I'm wearing, well, I just go nuts and usually end up in a crying mess. No, I didn't dye my hair bright colors, I have no tattoos, and I didn't wear holed jeans or mini skirts, but I didn't dress conservatively either. I always hated the idea that my intelligence or work ethic was in any way related to the way I dressed or did my makeup. I still think that way today. I guess that's one of the many reasons I'm glad I'm in France: it's not shocking to see someone in their 40's working in a very nice boutique who has piercings...but more on the "American work standard" versus the rest of the world later.

I mention this first interview because, as it turns out, the guy doing the interviews went to the co-op office and complained about me and the way I was dressed. I wore my normal school clothes, which mostly consisted of two pairs of pants, two shirts, a sweatshirt, and maybe a jacket since it was in the dead of winter in Northeast Ohio. I had refused to dress up for the interviews because it was beyond freezing cold and I had to leave a class early, go to the interview, and then go to my next class late. I thought it was stupid for a company to expect me to change into a suit just for them. They were coming on campus, I practically live on campus, so take me as I am. If I were going to an on-site interview, I would gladly wear a suit because I had time to get ready, I would drive my jeep there with the heat blasting, but not on campus. I was wrong. I got yelled at...again. So, from then on, I wore a suit. I didn't do my hair or makeup because I usually got to school around 6:00 or 7:00 and didn't leave until 23:00, but if it meant that much to them, then fine. Whatever. Of course, after this I was bitter and was even more glad that I didn't want to work for this tire company. A few weeks later I got a call from them asking for a second interview. I wasn't interested, and per the message on my phone, I didn't respond, but they kept calling me! I found it hilarious. They even got in contact with the co-op office to ask me to come in for an on-site interview! Really? You have that much of a problem with my dress but you won't leave me alone when I'm not interested? I went to the on-site interview, in a suit, and I still wasn't interested. Needless to say, I didn't end up working there.

I accepted a job with a company out of a smaller city who manufactured can lids (not the cans, just the lids). I was working as a co-op manufacturing engineer. I liked the company. First, they didn't complain about my dress. Second, they were red-necks, like me at the time, so that was a huge plus. I had just finished working as a mechanic and I liked getting my hands dirty by physically solving problems rather than being at a desk and working behind a computer all day.

When you work as a co-op you can stay with the same company throughout your undergrad, or you can change companies with each rotation. I chose to stay. I was really enjoying myself. I wasn't very close with the engineers, but the mechanics working on the assembly lines became great work friends. I could think like them, and they liked that. They enjoyed having an engineer who could understand what they were talking about and who could not only visualize their problems but was willing to physically help solve them. As a mechanic myself, I felt for them and tried to make their problems a priority. It was very common for the engineers to give me a problem that needed to be solved, and when I asked the mechanics about it, to find out that it really wasn't a problem at all or that it had already been solved. I became a link between the engineer's theoretical solution and the mechanic's real-life solution, and I had the vocabulary and training to translate between these two worlds. I do have to be completely honest in that the mechanics also enjoyed that their new-found liaison was an attractive, young, red-headed woman - and this fact, and the small matter of nepotism, would eventually lead to my resignation.

Nepotism. In short, that is what drove this company. The head boss of one of the plants was the brother of the head boss of the other plant. One of the lead mechanics was married to one of the ladies who packed the can lids and his son was another mechanic. Two more of the lead mechanics were brothers. The girlfriend of one of these brothers worked in shipping. The list goes on. Basically, every one who worked there was related to at least three other people who worked there, save me and a few other employees. If they were not related, they had known each other since childhood or they were married to a distant family member. So, as you can imagine, my problems began as problems do: rumors. Any man that I spoke with immediately had some sexual tie to me, especially if we got along. Those rumors spread to the homes, to the wives of those men, etc. A huge storm was brewing and I hadn't a clue about it. Things heated up after the one of the mechanics and his girlfriend told the wife of his brother, who was another mechanic, that there was something between us. To be perfectly honest, we were friends, and I was very happy to call him a friend. This man was one of the sweetest men who worked there, and also one of the smartest. I loved working with him not only because of his kindness but also because he was one of the most experienced, so he literally made my job easier. We did have lunch together sometimes, but that wasn't odd to me because I also had lunch with other co-workers, yes, most of them men. But for some reason it was this man's brother and his brother's girlfriend who decided that I was a problem and that I needed to go.

My work environment became hostel when the brother lashed out at me one day. I didn't know why and I didn't understand. I asked my friend what was wrong with his brother, and he told me of the rumors going around. I thought it was silly. I mean, if this man were a woman or if I were a man, there would be nothing wrong, but this man was a man, unhappily married and friends with an attractive 21 year old red-headed engineer. Of course, that only meant the worst. I avoided the brother and became aware of a "being watched" feeling as I went to work. I began to take more notice of my surroundings, who spoke with who, who was paying attention to me, and what, if I could find out, was being said. The more I found out, the more I realized that these rumors ran much deeper than I had imagined, all the way up to the top. It wasn't enjoyable working there anymore, and I began avoiding leaving my office and being careful of everything I said, where I went, and what I did.

It all came to a head at the company dinner. It was supposed to be a nice night and I was excited. I got dressed up and went to the reception hall. I was seated with the other engineers, which made me sad because I wasn't friends with any of them and I would have much rather sat with the other mechanics or the people with whom I worked everyday, but I was polite and tried to enjoy myself nonetheless. It was when I saw this man's wife that everything became very clear to me. He was in his 40's, very attractive, kind, gentle, not egotistical in any way. I had heard all the rumors about him (along with most of the other people who worked there as well) and it was well known that he was married before until he left his first wife for his current wife, who many said stole him and tricked him out of his first marriage. No, his first marriage wasn't happy, but neither was his second. He had a son with his first wife, and now a young boy with his second. She, on the other hand, was something else. I guess the best way to put it, for those of you familiar with reality tv, was that she made Snooki look normal. She was short, much shorter than he, with long dark brown hair that was died a light blond in chunks all around, highly teased. She was wearing a dress that I would have found much more appropriate for a middle school prom: black and hot pink, short. Her skin...I don't know how to describe it except that she must live in a tanning bed. She wasn't black, no. She wasn't dark brown...well, maybe dark brown with an orange glow. Her makeup was extremely heavy, not at all appropriate for her age...alright, to be honest, I hope no one wears their makeup like this. It was blatantly clear to me that this man's kindness was not just kindness but also submissiveness. I felt for him. He had no backbone, and this woman ran him just the way she wanted. Obviously she had a problem with growing older and was therefore easily intimidated.

So, what did I do? Well, I just couldn't let an opportunity like this pass me by. I had to test the waters all the way to the end: I walked up to their table, said hi to everyone, and introduced myself to her and gave her all the compliments in the world about how lovely it was to meet her, how beautiful she was (because even if I don't approve of her physical appearance, I don't know her, and it matters who you are on the inside, not out, so I wasn't lying; also, every woman is beautiful, even if it may be hard to see in some), and then complimented her on how wonderful her husband is and how he makes my life easier and is a joy to work with. Then it happened. The brother made a bee-line for the table and practically yelled at me to get up and follow him, in front of everyone. I was frightened by the look on his face and his tone of voice. I followed him outside. He had me up against the wall and yelled at me, nose to nose, to stay the hell away from his brother, and then returned inside. At that point I just broke down. I was shaking, crying, and in utter shock. I had wanted to test the waters, and damn did I test them. I had expected to simply see how insecure this woman was, not to see the abusive tendencies of her brother-in-law.

Like I said, there were many witnesses to this event, so it was within a matter of minutes that one of the managers and the HR manager had me pulled aside to figure out what had just happened. I told them everything. We agreed to further address the issue the next day of work, and if I needed to be escorted to my car that they would find someone to help me. Some of my other co-workers reached out to me and convinced me to stay. We left the dinner and went across the street to a dance club. They did a great job helping me to forget what had just happened, and I ended the evening on a high note: having an enjoyable time dancing the night away with people who cared.

The day before I went into work I couldn't sleep. The entire ride there I was stressed (which is saying a lot since it was an hour ride one way). I was shaking as I entered the parking lot. I made sure to get there early as to avoid the brother, or anyone really, and I quickly went into my office, always keeping an eye out through the window. I jumped every time someone opened the door. The brother had physically come at me, and I wasn't going to find out if he could or would become more physical than just yelling at me at close range. I called my co-op office and told them everything about what had happened. My mother knew as well. I made sure to have witnesses to everything that went on. The manager who had spoken to me before called me into a meeting. It was him, the head of the plant, and the HR manager. They asked me to close the door and sit down. My gut was screaming at me that something wasn't right, so I listened to it and cautiously answered their questions. All three of them were on one side of the table, with me alone on the other. They informed me that the brother was at the other plant that day, and for the rest of the week, but not because of what happened, rather because they simply needed him there. I found this to be strange. If they wanted to protect me or reassure me, wouldn't they have just sent him there because of what happened? To keep us apart? They mentioned this more than once, and I found it odd that they kept insisting that he wasn't moved because of his actions, but rather because of regular work-related matters. The entire time we talked they tried to make light of the situation. They asked what had happened leading up to the events of the dinner. They kept prodding for answers I didn't have and making excuses for the brother. It was all so eerie to me, so again, I answered cautiously. At the end of the meeting I was joking with them about non related matters so that they would let me leave. My mother texted me and I looked at my phone. Immediately my manager made an uneasy laugh and said, "Oh, ha ha, hey, by the way, you weren't taping this conversation, were you?" I knew something was wrong. I told him the truth, that I wasn't, but at that moment I wish I had.

I returned to my desk and phoned my mother from the company phone. She was so upset about how they had treated me and what they had said during the meeting. She suggested that I don't go in again without someone from outside as a witness to stand up for me. They called me back to the meeting room. I went there, put my hands on the door and asked them what they needed. They asked me to come in and close the door. I told them no. They could tell me whatever it was they needed to tell me right where I was standing. They refused and asked me again to come in. Again, I refused. Something was very wrong with this place, and all I knew was that I needed to get out. Finally, I left, having never gone in the room. I returned to my office and phoned my mother, again using the company phone. There are lights on the phones and you can see who is on a line and who isn't. I began to realize that they were waiting for me to get off the line, so I stayed on. I locked my office door and kept talking with my mother as I gathered my things. My manager came by about 15 min later only to find the door locked. My office was in the middle of the plant floor, and I was one of two people with the key, so he couldn't get in. He left, and when I felt that it was safe, I snuck out to my car and drove off. I never went back.

The co-op office knew of everything that took place. The company never said a word to the co-op office. We all just left it as it was, however that was. Looking back, I think it was insane that a 21 year old woman had to go through something like that, as a student simply working during college, but now I'm glad it happened. As with everything, it was a learning experience, a very messed up learning experience, but still a learning experience. I am now more aware of my surroundings, not only at a job but in life. I have learned to pay attention to how I act and what I say, and to the reactions of those around me. I also know that if I ever learn that everyone in a company is related to everyone else, it's time to leave.

So far I have not had another job experience like that, but I will never say never. I thought that my horrible experience at my community college would never happen again...unfortunately, I was wrong.
When I first visited the university, I had applied to enter into the Honors College. This meant that I had to go through a special interview with a professor from my college (in this case, the College of Engineering) and if he/she deemed me worthy, I would become an Honors Student. Yeah, so I was a bit nervous, but as always I tried my best just to be myself. I had already been through so much during my time at the community college so I figured, eh, let's go for it.

When I walked in the room, the professor doing the interviewing immediately greeted me as if I was almost a celebrity. Turns out I was already famous and didn't even know it. As soon as my application crossed his desk he checked up on me with the community college and my vocational school. It is so rare to have an engineering student who not only has previous hands on experience but also is an ASE certified master mechanic....oh, yeah, and a woman ;) The interview continued not as if we were professor and nervous applicant but rather as if we were esteemed colleagues. It was so cool. After the interview (I assume I was the last person for that day) he invited me on a tour of the engineering college. This, as I found out later, wasn't customary. He took me around to all of the labs and introduced me to all the teams (for those of you who don't know, most engineering colleges have teams that compete in engineering related competitions: civil engineers have the Concrete Canoe, mechanicals have the Formula SAE, the SAE Supermileage Competition, etc - oh, and my university kicks butt in all of these competitions btw...). On top of that, all of the captains of the teams knew of me as well. It wasn't "Let me introduce you to one of our Honors College candidates," it was "Hey (insert name)! This is Sarah, the girl I was telling you about. The master mechanic." Again, so cool. (oh, yes, I was accepted into the Honors College)

I began as a sophomore, but I had to catch up with one or two freshman engineering classes. As an engineering student, you aren't officially admitted into the engineering college until your sophomore year and you must have at least a C average in all of your engineering related classes (if I got that wrong, I apologize, but it's something close to that if not). I also made a couple of friends who would become my lab and homework partners for the rest of my time there. As it turns out, I did not join any of the teams. I went to one of the meetings of the Formula team, but the guy in charge told me I should paint the roll cage during the time there. Maybe it was an initiation, maybe he didn't fully know my previous experience, but for me there was simply too much testosterone. I decided I'd best leave it to the boys since I wanted to save my strength for the class load to come rather than fight for equality all over again. Instead, I joined ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers). We had meetings on a regular basis where individuals from the industry were invited to give speeches and tell us all about "the real world". There was pizza and soda, so you know I'm there when there's free food. The topics were diverse, from how to brew your own beer to the fluid mechanics of arteries and veins to robotic prosthetics. We also took field trips, to the wind tunnel at NASA for example. I made friends with a group of seniors and some juniors who were officers in the club, and it was cool to have people to look up to. After they graduated, I ran for president of ASME, and I held that office for the last two years of school.

The Engineering College was awesome. The professors were fantastic. Everyone had almost the same schedule (there were different class times available for certain classes, but you followed a well structured plan) and we really became a family. We had cliques, but everyone worked together. There was the smartest guy and girl in the class (who dated each other toward the end, which was adorable) and the class clown and his group (who ended up making a Facebook group for us called ME-GB which either stood for Mechanical Engineers Give Back or Mechanical Engineers Gang Bang lol...I'm sure they prefer the first one but the second name got tossed around - we all have code names, mine being Harley Harlequin since I own a Harley Davidson, and they made t-shirts for us before graduation). In short, my time in the Engineering College was amazing.

In addition to engineering I decided to take the classes necessary for a bachelor's in Applied Mathematics. There were only about 3 classes needed to have a minor, and something like 6 classes to have the bachelor, so I thought why not. I didn't start the math courses until my junior year, and boy was that a mistake. I hadn't touched math (well, in the sense of 'pure math' if you will - we used math every day in my engineering classes, but the theoretical stuff...it had been a while) in over a year and I had forgotten a lot. During the first semester of my math studies, I took 4 math classes at once (insane) and they were very difficult, but I was fortunate to have some really amazing professors and I would make some wonderful friends. After class I would go to the tutoring lab and literally spend hours there working with my classmates to figure out problems (eating lunch, dinner, and usually leaving when the library closed at 11pm). At the end, I passed, but I honestly don't know how. If I were a professor I wouldn't have given me a math degree, but I earned it so what the heck. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself, but to all of my fellow mathematicians who really understand this stuff: my hat's off to ya.
There I was, at a community college. I had decided to pursue my automotive studies for a while because I had grown so fond of the topic while in high school (and I had proven myself to be pretty good at fixing cars by that time). I also went to the community college for a simpler reason: it was cheaper than a university. So I drove my beloved red '95 Jeep Wrangler to school and began studying in GM ASEP.

GM ASEP (General Motors Automotive Service Excellence Program) was designed to work with GM and with ASE (for those of you who don't know, ASE is the accreditation that mechanics get, and usually if a mechanic is ASE Certified, it means they know what the heck they're doing. You'll see a blue gear with the letters ASE in white on the door of most shops and dealers). You go to school for 8 weeks, then you go to work for 8 weeks at a GM dealer or shop. I was very excited. I had worked at a Cadillac/Hummer dealer as a file person during high school (don't really know the word since it's not exactly a receptionist, I just put files away), so I signed up with that dealer when it came time to be a "real mechanic". They were building a brand new Hummer dealership in another city and I was to go there as one of the first mechanics to open the shop. Totally cool.

School was fun. I was the only girl, but as in high school, I quickly became top of the class. I took my ASE certifications as I studied - there are a total of 8 basic exams to pass before you can be considered a "master technician", and usually the tests are so long you can't take more than a few at a time. Also, to get the certification, you have to prove that you worked as a mechanic for at least 2 years. That meant that by the time I graduated, I would be master certified. I also took calculus classes at night to prepare for my future transfer to the university for engineering.

By the end of the two years I had had a ton of fun and learned a lot: there were struggles at the dealership with some of the technicians (I ended up switching back to the main dealer), I had had a love life, and I passed all of my ASE exams. Now, at the end of the year there is an award given to the best student in the class. You have to have a certain GPA to be eligible, and the winner gets a scholarship in the form of a tool box and tools from one of the main tool manufacturers (aka worth a lot of money). There were only myself and one other guy who were eligible, and being the only girl, the top of the class by a long shot, and the first person in the then 33 year history of the school to be graduating as an ASE certified master mechanic, it seemed like I was a shoe in.

Two weeks before graduation I had to visit my new university for student orientation. I forgot to tell my professor that I would miss his class, so I emailed him that evening explaining my predicament. It was a 1 credit class on business management. We had to develop a pretend company and present business things like our plans, budgets, etc. My group had already presented, but the teacher made attendance mandatory as to avoid kids not coming if it wasn't their day to present (which was probably a good idea since it was Friday mornings and the only class we had on Fridays).

I went to the university as planned and was very excited to start my engineering career. I hadn't heard back from my professor, so I thought nothing of it. It wasn't until I checked my schedule online (I don't even know why I was checking actually) that I noticed his class wasn't in my schedule. I thought it strange and searched everywhere but it was no where to be found. Finally, I went to grades, and next to his class there was a "W". I researched what "W" meant and found it meant "withdrawn". I froze. Completely froze. What did that mean? And why? He had basically kicked me out of the class two weeks before my graduation for attending my university's new student orientation and not coming in for 1 hour on a Friday morning to listen to a group present. I felt like someone punched me in the stomach. Up until that moment I had only cried that hard on two other occasions, one of them being during my mom's first divorce.

Not knowing what to do, I started calling people. I called everyone and anyone I knew. Since I was the only girl, top of the class, and completely beyond what the school had ever seen up until that point I had many connections. I called my old professor, I called my current professors, I called the dean of the college, everyone. It was all I could think of to do. I wasn't going to go down without a fight with some teacher who was being unfair and playing a power game. This class was mandatory to graduate, and I was going to graduate.

Long story short, I was reinstated. No one could believe what the teacher did, and he was made to come to a meeting with me, my mother, and a witness to apologize. Emotionally I tried to be strong, but honestly I was so broken. I didn't know that a thing like this was possible. I couldn't attend his classes for the entire week. I would come to school and start shaking as I drove up to the lot. I would burst into tears as I came close to the door. I was a mess.

For the graduation ceremony it was a small dinner for all the automotive students, family, and friends. After all that had happened, it was the last thing I wanted to go to. My mother literally forced me to go, and I admit that we both regret going to this day. We sat with my high school teacher and his wife, whom I love as if they were my grandparents. It was awkward. The entire meal I felt sick to my stomach. At the end, when they announced the winner of the scholarship, my mother was all ready to jump up and scream, but all she did was let out a huge gasp as they announced the only other guy who was eligible as the winner. My whole table was paralyzed, and I simply got up, thanked everyone for coming to support me, and asked if we could leave. There was one dealership owner who was notorious for being a bigot toward women, and he clapped all the louder when he saw me leaving. I was glad to go. It was nice being the only woman. It was nice breaking a little more of their stereotypes. But I was done. I was tired of playing that game and I was on to bigger and better things: engineering.
Well, I guess it's customary to begin at the beginning...

How did I get here? I'll be turning 27 this summer, happily living with my boyfriend in Nice, France, about 10 min walking from the Mediterranean Sea. But where did it all begin?

I guess you could say it all began in French class my freshman year of high school. I loved French. "Loved" like to the point of being obsessed with French. I was even crowned French I Student of the Year that year - got a little fleur-de-lis pin. The thing I loved about French was the same thing every other American loves about French: the idea of French and of France was just beautiful. I mean, what American doesn't enjoy a French accent or French bread? I was no exception. I remember looking at the pictures in my French book and thinking, "Wow, one day I want to go there." My favorite pictures were of the Loire Valley, said to be the most beautiful area in France (little did I know one day I would live there). I was hooked.

Unfortunately for my travel and language plans, I had had dreams of being an engineer since I was about 5 years old. I know, how could I have dreams of engineering that young? My mom. That's the simple answer. As she tells the story: I was 5 years old and I had a toy 1959 Corvette - black with a white tear drop - and when you pulled it backwards it would wind up and drive by itself when you let it go. I was playing with it when my mom asked, "Sweetie, you like that car?" "Yes." "Do you want one when you're older?" "Yes." "Alright, then get a degree in math or science and don't get married until you're finished." "Okay Mommy." That was it. Alright, I guess I should admit that the name "engineer" didn't come in until I was in middle school. We had to pick what we wanted to be when we got older. Hell, I hadn't a clue, like any 'normal' middle school kid, so I asked Mom. She told me to be an engineer. I said Ok. My mother is my best friend in the entire world, and I'm pretty much a mini-her, so I knew that whatever she said was true and I trusted her (and over 10 years later, I can say that she was correct. I love engineering!).

So, back to French class. I finished with French class, switched high schools, and got into engineering and math gear. Languages went out the window because there was simply no time for them, and when I entered college that became even more apparent. I went to two different high schools, split right down the middle: first 2 years at one school, last 2 years at another. My first school worked on block scheduling. That means that you take 4 classes a semester for a period of about 90 min each, then you take 4 more classes the second semester. I LOVED period scheduling. It just made sense, and it let you finish early, i.e. I finished French I-III in two years instead of three. Unfortunately for me, I switched schools to a high school with period scheduling, so the "normal" 8 classes a day for 50 min each BS. I hated it, and because I had finished so many requirements within the first 2 year span, I had the equivalent of 4 classes free every day. What the heck was I to do with this time? Certainly not fill it with blow off courses - I already felt that high school (in America) was a complete waste of time (and I still do) - so I decided to study auto mechanics. I liked old cars and I was just learning how to drive so why not? I entered vocational school for automotive mechanics.

Believe it or not, I wasn't the only girl in my class. I remember the first day we had to check in our tools in our tool boxes (to see if any were missing). I knew what a wrench was, but I didn't even know that they came in different sizes. My teacher saw me sitting there, the only person left, and he asked what was wrong. When I admitted that I had absolutely no idea what any of the tools were, he sat down and helped me, telling me each and every name. That's how the whole year went. I worked hard. I found 'regular school' interesting because I loved my math courses and I chose photography as an elective, and I loved automotive because it was engaging and something new.

Two years later, right before graduation, I was top of the class in my automotive courses. I was chosen to participate in the Skills USA competition. Only one student from every school gets to compete, and only the top three students move on to the state competition. At regionals, I was the only girl. The competition was set up with a written exam and then stations where you had to perform automotive skills: showing how to set up circuits in series and parallel with a battery, finding a problem with a vehicle and noting the problem and possibilities to fix it, adjusting brakes, measuring a cam or crank lobe, etc. I won 3rd. I went onto the state competition and won 5th place, beating out 17 other guys. Oh, I was also the only girl at states for automotive. I felt accomplished and I loved cars, so I decided to pursue my automotive studies in college.