Being Noticed

Vanessa Evoen - Process Engineer at LAM Research

Photography : @maria_boguslav

Photography : @maria_boguslav

Growing up, I lived in LA, Belgium, England, and Nigeria. My mother was a basketball player and my father played soccer.  Even though my parents were not in STEM, I always wanted to be an aerospace engineer. My love for engineering was self-motivated. I was obsessed with planes and thought it would be really cool to fly all over the world. I wanted to incorporate travel into my job. I started college as an Aerospace Engineer but took an Organic Chemistry class and did well in it. I was getting top grades in my class which was surprising because, in high school, Chemistry was my weakest science subject. I switched majors shortly after and did my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Chemical Engineering from Caltech and now work as a Process Engineer at LAM on their Logic-Etch team.

I was the only black person in my undergrad classes which meant that I was always noticed before I wanted to be. As the semester progressed and test scores started coming out, people would always be shocked at my high grades. I would get weird questions like ‘oh are you adopted?’ and I didn’t understand why people could not believe that someone who looks like me could succeed in academics. I remember going to some of my classes and the teachers would ask me ‘are you sure you’re in the right class?’ or ‘are you sure you’re supposed to be here?’ When professors saw me acing my exams they would always want to talk to me after class and try to understand what my ‘deal’ was. Some professors were genuinely invested in my success and it helped me find mentors early on. It was my heat transfer teacher who pushed me to go to grad school and wrote me letters of recommendation.

 I remember there was this one guy in my chemistry class that was always mad at me. He wanted to get into medical school and since we were graded on a curve it meant that when I scored higher than him on a test it would mess up his grade. He would ask me aggressive questions like ‘why are you here?’,  ‘ where are you from?’, or ‘ what’s your deal?’ I could tell he was jealous but at the same time wanted to do homework with me because he knew I was smart. I remember not wanting that kind of attention and thinking to myself whether an A was really worth hearing him call me out and having him get angry with me. I pulled back in a way because I didn’t want to be that girl that always got the highest grade in every class.

I started off grad school by trying to be nice because I wanted to avoid the attention I got in undergrad. It almost backfired because I felt like I was too nice and people would take advantage of that. I would always concede during a technical disagreement and never spoke up if someone was using my idea or tool as their own. I would always tell my peers that ‘we’re all in this together’ and that it doesn’t really matter who gets the credit as long as we all graduate. I was super ambitious in undergrad and very passive during grad school and now that I am working, I am trying to find the balance between the two. I need to learn how to be more assertive. It’s difficult to toe the line between speaking out and standing up for yourself without being perceived as aggressive when you’re a woman. I am the only black female engineer at my company; it can be hard to take ownership of your idea when you’ve been living with impostor syndrome for so long but I am learning to get better at it. I hope one day my story and work can pave way for more girls to pursue STEM.