Madelyn Hoffhines is a U-M sophomore who recently declared her major in mechanical engineering. Below, she blogs about her journey to the department, why she chose mechanical engineering, and how she came to find community among her peers.
Journey to Mechanical Engineering
August 29, 2022 – My head buzzed as I stood outside CHEM 1800, eagerly waiting for the large double doors to open and give me a glimpse at the next four months of my life. At 9:51 am, the doors opened. I rushed inside and looked around at the lecture hall that had enough seats to hold the entire graduating class of my large high school. “My future starts now” I thought. All of my hard work in high school seemed to be paying off, and I felt confident that I would succeed with no problems in college. I felt comfortable in my future plans. I had always wanted to be an engineer, and throughout my entire life, school had always been easy. What could possibly stand in my way?
Spoiler alert: it turns out a lot could stand in my way. I remember the feeling of disappointment as I got my first exam scores back for chemistry and calculus. I felt like I was behind everybody else academically, and I didn’t feel like I had time for anything outside of school. I remember sitting in my Calculus II study group, feeling suffocated in integrals and Taylor series, while my classmates seemed to have a better grasp on the content. The same problems my classmates solved in 15 minutes took me an hour. After struggling with my math class, I would go work on my ENGR 101 project and feel equally lost. Matrices, loops, and indexing just didn’t seem to come as naturally to me as to my peers. I felt isolated and worried that I wasn’t cut out for engineering. I debated changing my major, almost letting my self-doubt permanently alter my future.
I entered my second semester at Michigan doubtful of everything. Was I cut out for engineering? My confidence was at an all-time low, but suddenly, I started to rediscover my passion for engineering through my ENGR 100 class. My section was titled “Wireless Microscopic Ore Rover” and our task was to build a small, remote-controlled rover that collected dust samples and was able to navigate a dark maze. We built it from the ground up, wrote progress memos, and delivered progress presentations multiple times over the semester to develop our technical communication skills.
My professors made the new and challenging topics approachable, and I realized I really enjoy the “people” part of engineering. Writing technical reports, delegating tasks, public speaking, and collaborating with my teammates as we built our rover rebuilt my confidence and helped me rekindle my love for engineering. I gained confidence detailing our assembly process, collected data, and continuous improvement for our class and professors (who were the “stakeholders” for our in-class engineering company). I learned how to solder wires, use a breadboard, integrate electrical and mechanical components by building a robot arm, use an oscillator, and use solidworks.
After spending a semester frustrated with math formulas, applying engineering principles to a real project was a breath of fresh air. I remembered why I chose engineering. The feeling of satisfaction after solving a difficult problem, or the sense of pride in the project, motivated me to keep going. Working in such a positive environment pushed me to keep going, and I often see and talk to my classmates from ENGR 100 in my mechanical engineering classes now!
The Big Jump
I recently took on one of the scariest tasks a college student can face: declaring my major. I officially announced to the world, “This is what I’m passionate about! This is what I want to do for the rest of my life!” I have never been a particularly decisive person, and I came to college interested in just about everything. Committing to one academic subject for four years and one “field” of work for the rest of my life felt like such a large task.
I’d always been drawn to engineering. I grew up watching my dad tinker with electronics, and loved all the stereotypical “engineer” things (LEGO, puzzles, you get the idea). I never knew what kind of engineering I wanted to pursue, though. The opportunities seemed endless. Did I want to work on medical devices, rockets, robots, energy, buildings, or one of the million other engineering focus areas? How was I supposed to choose just one? As I nervously scheduled my declaration appointment, I reflected on how I ended up here. I entered college starry-eyed, passionate, and feeling like the world was at my fingertips. Then, there were just too many things I wanted to do with my life, suddenly, or at least, too many things I wanted the opportunity to do.
I think that’s what drew me to mechanical engineering. The concepts I am learning are so widely applicable that it provides me with the ability to explore many different industries. I feel secure knowing that the skills and knowledge I gain in my degree will allow me to take on any problem, whether in my career or through passion projects. When I graduate I can work in whatever field I want, start my own company, or just build cool stuff in my garage!
One of my favorite non-professional things about learning mechanical engineering is working on my car and understanding more and more about what I’m working on everytime I open the hood. As I progress through my mechanical engineering degree it feels like I am slowly unlocking the secrets to how the world works. When I walk into a building I understand where its electricity is coming from and how it’s generated (thanks to ME235), and I notice the forces that are balancing each other to keep the building from falling down (thanks to ME211). I feel capable of pursuing whatever I want and have learned to utilize my knowledge and confidence gained by getting involved in organizations on campus.
The confidence I regained in my second semester at Michigan encouraged me to explore my interests and find community. Now, I spend the majority of my time taking part in projects that remind me why I love mechanical engineering. I joined Human Powered Submarine, a student project team, and have really enjoyed working to take our submarine, Marlin, from the design stage to the fabrication. I started out helping with the CAD drawings for our propulsion system and creating manufacturing plans for a support system that sits inside the submarine. I then got to help with the construction of the submarine by assisting with the layup, which involved taking a composite our team selected and using a giant mold to build the layup of our sub. Now, we are working on integrating all of our subsystems so the submarine can be operated and will be ready for our race in England next summer.
I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to struggle and that struggling itself is not a reflection on my abilities as an engineer. (Side note: If you’re struggling at the beginning of your studies it’s totally normal.) I ended up denying myself opportunities out of fear of not being good enough, but I wish I had challenged myself to do scary things sooner! I was too scared to join a project team because I assumed my lack of knowledge would cause me to embarrass myself, not realizing that freshmen are encouraged to join. I didn’t network or apply to challenging programs out of fear of rejection, assuming that everybody could see into my brain and see someone who isn’t as smart as their peers.
I like to remind myself now that I have plenty of skills that will make me a good engineer even if I don’t fully understand every single topic I learn right when I’m introduced to it. Arguably, the most important piece of advice I have for combatting imposter syndrome is finding a community within mechanical engineering. I would not be succeeding in my classes if I didn’t take the leap and start going to office hours, talking to my classmates, forming study groups, and finding people who understood my struggles. Engineering is not meant to be taken on solo, and mechanical engineering has provided me with a great community that has helped me realize I’m not alone in my struggles. Talk to your neighbor in class, form a class group chat, form a study group, join a project team, and get involved in the mechanical engineering community!