Jennifer Rexford talk at SWE/GWISE graduation luncheon (May 2007)

Jennifer Rexford talk at SWE/GWISE graduation luncheon (May 2007)

Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here with you today, to congratulate you on what you have accomplished, and to wish you well as you embark on the exciting next phase of your careers.

Before you leave us, I ask you to take a moment and reflect on your alma mater to be. John Sawhill from the class of 1958 once said:

"Remember the joke about how many Princetonians it takes to screw in a lightbulb? Of course, the answer is three. One to install the new lightbulb, and two to write about how good the old one was."

Well, big, old institutions, like Princeton, understandably change slowly, but change they do. Sixteen years ago, on the eve of my own graduation from Princeton, the engineering school here had three women faculty members. Across the entire engineering school. Now, there are five women faculty members in the computer science department alone. A couple of weeks ago, I served on a PhD thesis committee where all three of the thesis Readers were women engineering faculty. It was the first time that ever happened. Margaret Martonosi checked! Sixteen years ago that would only have been possible with an immensely interdisciplinary dissertation!

And, when I look across my own research community, in computer science, I see a wealth of programs and events that support and encourage women in the field: the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the women's groups of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Computing Research Association, and all the mentoring programs and conferences they run for women graduate students and faculty. And, this year, Fran Allen became the first woman to win the Turing Award, essentially the Nobel Prize in computer science, for her seminal work on compiler techniques.

Where does such change come from? Change sometimes seems to have a momentum all its own, larger than any of us, and perhaps that's true. Undoubtedly, the passage of time has enabled a generation of women to succeed and swell the ranks of the faculty, here and elsewhere. And, well, Fran Allen has been brilliant for awhile, and her time for recognition was bound to come. But there is more to it than that. These structures, these communities, like the Grace Hopper event, like the ACM and CRA groups, exist and are vibrant because they have a small, yet critical, mass of dedicated people driving them. And this is not just at the national or international level, but also at the local level, too, in groups like SWE and GWISE that have volunteers who put in the energy to create and sustain a community, to bolster and support one another, to organize events like this one, and hopefully to have a little fun together in the process.

Sometimes the volunteer helps create the community she wants to be a part of, and sometimes she creates the community for others that she wished had been there when she most needed it. Whatever the reason, individual, dedicated people work wonders, even greater wonders than the passage of time does. The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said... (By the way, in case you haven't noticed, I collect quotations as a hobby. They're little, and I moved around a lot as I kid, so I needed a hobby that was easy to pack up and carry around.) Anyway, Margaret Mead once said:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

I say this not only about professional societies and support structures for women engineers, though this is an important topic in its own right, and this is clearly the right place to talk about it. But, more broadly, about the sense of community and connection we all want in our lives, outside of college. In the next stage of your professional lives, you may be fortunate to go somewhere that already has a community, or many communities, that fulfill you. I hope that is the case, and that those communities enrich you and you enrich them. If not, though, there's nothing quite like rolling up your sleeves and creating the community you want, or the many communities you want for different facets of who you are, for yourself, and for others, whether in your company, or school, or professional society, or elsewhere.

These questions about communities, and where they come from, were on my mind a great deal when I was in college here. I was a junior during the 20th anniversary of coeducation at Princeton, in 1989, and there were many retrospectives on campus. My college roommate Yvonne and I talked about women in engineering a lot. Well, actually, for a while we were brainstorming who should speak at our graduation. We had several great ideas that never materialized. First, we thought of the great author Dr. Seuss, and then a few months later he died. Then we thought of the great computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper, and then, well, she died, too. And, then Yvonne and I felt a bit spooked and decided we should think about something else for awhile...

Anyway, so Yvonne and I were curious about the effects of coeducation on the engineering school, and specifically the experiences of women engineering students here over the years. We did a project to collect the writings of engineering alumnae, and historical writings about women and engineering at Princeton. The full book is online in PDF format on my home page, if you're interested to read more. (As a faculty member I can't help but take advantage of any opportunity to peddle my books!) But, I wanted to share with you a few excerpts. I should say that the engineering school, and some of the individual departments, provided most of the financial support for our book, for which we were very grateful. They really had no idea if our book would prove to be a biting indictment of the status of women in the engineering school, or a broad and varied account of women engineering students' experiences here at Princeton and beyond, and we were thrilled that SEAS placed such trust in us.

Anyway, my personal favorite excerpt from the historical record, was in the Patterson Report on Coeducation at Princeton in 1968:

"Our studies persuaded us of further beneficial influences of admitting women. Because women seek somewhat different courses and have somewhat different interests, they tend to distribute themselves among departments different from the way men do. The result of coeducation would be a shift in the educational profile of the University toward the humanities and arts, and away from engineering and the pure sciences. A very substantial number of our faculty view this shift in emphasis as desirable."

I found this comment fascinating, as it reflects a feeling at the time that undergraduate education here was becoming too focused on professionalism, and needed a correcting influence back toward scholarship and liberal arts. Now, I'm not trying to say that women were admitted to Princeton to dilute the engineering school's role on campus, but I find this excerpt pretty interesting in showing how a group of people can have, and articulate, a sense of the culture they want to have, and ways to steer their institutions in that direction. And, of course, there's a lot wrong with this excerpt in the report. Clearly, women do choose engineering, as evidenced by all of us together in this room. And, there is scholarship and beauty in engineering. But, I still find it interesting that a group of people can have such a clear sense of how they want a culture to change, and how policy decisions can have such a profound influence on how the culture shifts.

In the many responses from the alumnae, I found quite interesting the strong sense of identity, pride, and community in being engineering students, in being different from the A.B. students on campus. Often, these feelings of belonging to engineering trumped feeling of isolation based on gender.

Here are a few examples.

Jakie Holen, from the class of 1986, said

"I became an engineer for two reasons -- ignorance and tenacity."

A student from the class of 1992, said

"Liberal arts students will always make fun of us for being geeks, and we'll always make fun of them for having no work."

Frances Rago, from the class of 1985, said

"I can't remember how many times I heard the comment, `Gee, you don't look like an engineer!' -- a back-handed compliment at best."

Another similar comment from Caroline Stahle from the class of 1985,

"`You don't look like an engineer!' It was always non-technically-minded male students who made comments like that. I stopped dating non-scientists by the middle of my first year at Princeton."

That said, her advice flies in the face of a student from the class of 1991 who cautioned

"Experience speaks about dating your lab partner. Don't, don't, don't! If you must, wait until the class is over and he is no longer The Lab Partner!"

But, I found most interesting the responses from the women who graduated from Princeton in the 1970s, many of whom responded to our requests for writings and interviews, wanting to share some of their experiences about their time at Princeton, and afterwards. Fortunately for us, there were so few women engineering students in those early years that Yvonne and I could afford to stalk them individually!

Patricia Falcone, from the class of 1974, said

"I keep thinking of war stories we could all commiserate with -- like taking physics in Palmer Hall. There was no women's bathroom there, so when I was ill during a final exam, I had to waste valuable exam time hunting the appropriate facilities in the music building.

I could relate to this because, when I was here, the EE department's wing in the E-Quad didn't have a women's bathroom. Actually, sadly, I think that is still true!

Molly Follete Story, from the class of 1978, said

"There was a greater need for women as engineers, because half of of all product users are female, even though only a small proportion of designers are. My master's project was the design and construction of a set of birthing furniture. Now, this was one product that needed some female design input!"

Can't argue with that!

And, finally, on the subject of community, Claire Shortall from the class of 1976 said:

"Fourteen of us started as freshmen in the fall of 1972. I remember each of the other 13 even though many dropped out of engineering before our sophomore year. We started out our first year as a statistic. To the administration, we were a welcomed surprise. At the time, there were only three other women engineering students at Princeton; their names are forever etched in my memory. Joyce Dean, an assistant in the engineering school's dean's office, encouraged us to get together to take study breaks, keep in contact, and discuss concerns. There may have been more pressure for us to succeed, and more obstacles for us to overcome, but we also had our own network, small as it was, from the beginning. She arranged for us to meet with working women engineers and encouraged us to form a SWE student section. [And we're fortunate today to have Yvonne Brill here, who helped the students form the first SWE chapter here.] By the end of our freshman year, Princeton became the 42nd student section chartered by SWE. In the end, half of the original group graduated as BSEs in June of 1976. The three of us who majored in chemical engineering were crazy enough to room together. I've often wondered if we survived as BSEs because we were roommates, or if we sensed we would be survivors and therefore roomed together."

I find Claire's comments particularly moving, because one assistant in the dean's office recognized, before the women students themselves did, that they needed a community of their own, and she helped them create it, so it was there when they needed it. And, after that, each year, other students have picked up the baton, and sustained and created their own communities. And these communities were both organized structures, like the SWE chapter, and the support they gave each other, as roommates and friends.

Wherever you go next, I hope that you find the community and culture that you want. But, if you don't, I hope that you will roll up your sleeves and create that community, for yourself, and for others.

Congratulations to all of you. Thank you.