I am so excited to invite my friend, Amber Spears, who I came to know through my fiancé during out time at the University of Michigan as a guest blogger! She is a dynamic woman with a great story and I hope you enjoy her piece…
I am so much more than my score
On Friday, October 25th, 2019, I sat for the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam. This exam is administered by each state and written by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. I sat for this exam in order to obtain my Professional Engineering License in Civil Engineering with the State of Michigan, and plan to subsequently obtain licensure with other states where I practice Civil Engineering. This exam has been at least an 8-year journey, as I was first confronted with needing to prepare for this exam during my junior year in undergrad, in 2011. Prior to learning about this exam in college, there was not a strong understanding of my career progression, beyond what people may have told me about having a license. Since I was originally planning to volunteer for my profession (yes, my goal was to work for Habitat for Humanity, or something of the sort), I really did not feel attached to a traditional career pathway for my field, and I especially didn’t really like the idea of having to take more exams.
During my senior year, I decided to postpone taking the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam (FE), although most of my peers were taking the FE prep course my university offered to prepare for the exam. I had resolved that my GPA took a serious hit during my junior year of taking all upper level Civil Engineering (CE) courses, while simultaneously being very involved in leadership roles with organizations on campus. I figured I would wait until my first year of grad school when I am not so committed to organizations, and not so worried about maintaining my faltering GPA.
During my first year of grad school, I made a commitment to avoid commitments. I did not plan on being very involved in any student organizations, as I was still getting acclimated to living in a city outside of my home state. I was able to take a FE prep course administered through my university, although it primarily consisted of undergrad students, and during the spring semester, I took and passed the exam. I was grateful to my colleagues, who informed and/or reminded me that passing the exam was not the only step in the State of Texas. I would have to apply for my Engineer-In-Training Certification through the Texas Board of Professional Engineers. To my dismay, however, during spring semester I also was put on academic probation due to my GPA falling to a 2.9. In grad school, you are not allowed to have less than a 3.0.
After taking a summer course and doing research, and subsequently performing better the next fall semester, I got the GPA boost I needed to remain a graduate student. Since this was the first time I had ever been on academic probation, it sharply increased my imposter syndrome. Although I knew since high school that I wanted to obtain a graduate degree, struggling in my upper level CE courses in undergrad after flourishing in my pre-requisites, and flourishing in my entire educational experience as a whole, had given me insecurities about the path I chose. Maybe Civil Engineering wasn’t for me. Maybe my desire to help people, coupled with my science and mathematics acumen, wasn’t enough to allow me to reach the level of expertise I desired within my field. I did not just want to get by in my profession because I wasn’t just looking for a better paying job. I wanted a career where I could make meaningful contributions to my field, where my presence would be needed and appreciated. I said all of this to say that, while I did obtain my graduate degree, I still had these “failures” hanging over my head. What made it worse is that I was not offered any jobs prior to me graduating, except one that I had been offered previously when I completed my only internship in undergrad. I literally called the company I interned with after receiving interviews and second interviews, but no offers, to make sure I would have a job. After they extended the offer and I accepted, one company did call me back to see if I was available and I told them that I had accepted an offer. I felt like I was just their second thought, because local companies had already offered most of my colleagues by this time. Even with all of this I can’t really complain because I was blessed to be employed. I tried negotiating my salary after realizing it was less than the average starting salary for someone with my credentials in Southeast Michigan, and it was rejected. I accepted the offer as is, my only request that was accepted was the request to be reimbursed for relocation back to my home state.
Fast forward five years later, after becoming an adjunct professor to determine if I want to go back for my PhD and become a full time professor, and using my position as an adjunct professor to study for my exam, I realize that there are so many more valuable lessons that have come with me taking the exam this past October. To get here, I left my first job, in order to get more experience in design and calculations under a licensed engineer, I spent several hours studying, took a prep course (twice), and navigated my network to receive advice, find study buddies, and accountability partners. I can’t forget that even my time spent with my professors, particularly in grad school, was invaluable. I am reminded of one time when I used up most of the office hours before an exam, and was in tears at various parts of that particular session, one of my professors assured and motivated me by saying that I was going to get my degree, but that this time is more for ensuring that I become an engineer who is keenly aware of all constraints and details for the work I would be doing.
There are not so uplifting moments about this journey, as well. The most frustrating parts were hearing stories of women I’ve admired, who have similar education backgrounds that I have (being educated by a highly ranked civil engineering department, and/or obtaining a bachelor’s and master’s in Civil Engineering), who have not passed the FE and/or PE. When I tell you that these are some of the hardest working women I know, you would understand why I feel that this exam has “failed” them. I’ve heard people who take part in administering/creating the exam say that they are trying to prevent people who should not have their license from practicing. I feel that this statement is haphazard, as people get their licenses revoked from malpractice, and most of the material that I was tested on was material I had to learn in order to take the exam. In my 5 years of practicing, I’ve only seen a fraction of what a Civil/Geotechnical Engineer may encounter, as it relates to my industry. To these women and to myself I want to affirm that we are so much more than our score. A person who takes the test once, versus a person who takes the test multiple times, still gets the same license at the end of the day. As far as I’m concerned, if the test was really for improving the profession, they would provide diagnostic feedback to everyone who takes the exam, not just those who don’t pass, in order to allow people to develop in areas where they may need to improve, and to recognize what their strengths are in the field. When it is only offered to those who do not pass, it could provide a false sense of security to those who are simply notified that they have passed. They may have scored lowest in the questions that relate the most to their industry, but they would never know, because they met the curve.
Another less frustrating, more annoying thing that happened on this journey is that I intended to take my exam in 2018, but I let things get in the way. In fall 2017, I took my first prep course for my license, and this was supposed to set me up to take the exam in spring 2018, fall 2018 at the latest. I had a study buddy that fall as well, but we took a break for the holidays, and never really found time to get back together after that. I entered a relationship in January of 2018 and informed them of my goals to study. We started our relationship with study dates, and by our fourth and final month of dating; we both stopped studying for our respective exams. By this time, the spring 2018 exam already passed and I decided early on that I wasn’t ready for it. This was only a minor setback however, because within the same month of our breakup, I actually met someone else who was intending to study for the PE exam. I was excited about the potential for this person being added to my network, because I felt like I needed a study buddy to hold me accountable. Unfortunately, this person was not willing to study with me unless I was interested in a relationship. Another exam came and went (fall 2018), and I was still without a study buddy. I can’t overlook that I also loss someone who was close to me during this time, and grieved another loss on the 15th year anniversary.
While I did reconnect with a friend who I studied with for a few times in the fall of 2018, and even attempted studying with a friend out of state via phone and webcam, by spring 2019, I had resorted to trying to go it alone. And I am so glad that I did. Once I was determined to take the fall 2019 exam, all the pieces started falling into place. I registered for the prep course again, and by August 2019, I was studying on weekends with a study buddy, who had taken the exam spring 2019, and gave me a critical pointer that sharply shifted my study habits. I was focused on studying for the morning exam, because I felt the general Civil exam is what I lacked the most knowledge on, but they encouraged me to study more for the afternoon exam, because this is what they noticed they felt ill prepared for during their time taking the exam. During the prep course, I connected with another study buddy/accountability partner. Within 3 months, I managed to answer over 100 unique practice exam questions on my own. I also took a practice exam in May 2019 and followed up in October 2019 with another practice exam. I reviewed material and got organized. It’s important to note that I got most of the practice questions I worked on outside of the practice exams wrong, but rather than discourage myself, I motivated myself by saying that I would rather get questions wrong while studying, and even if I got them all wrong, going through the solutions would still prepare me for the exam.
To date, I am still waiting for my results, but I have a peace that surpasses all understanding. Regardless of the result, the work that I’ve already put into my career is more than enough to tell me I belong here, that I can contribute to my profession in meaningful ways, and that I actually inspire others. I don’t know what’s next for me on my journey as a Civil Engineer, but as long as I continue to grow in experience, under ethical leadership who share their technical expertise, I will always be much more than my score.
Amber is an Engineer-In-Training, currently working as a Project Engineer for a Civil Engineering, Environmental, and Construction Consulting Firm in Michigan. She is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the International Geosynthetics Society. One of her favorite experiences as a Civil Engineer is when she volunteered with Engineering Ministries International, where she worked with an international team to provide design and consulting services to hospital abroad. She is also an active member of her church, and is currently developing her spiritual gift of ministry through song.
To learn more about her journey, please refer to the following links: