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I am a Swat Engineer

Why the world needs us, atypical as we may be

I have answered some challenging questions in job interviews: “Your résumé says you have a B.S. in engineering with no specialty. You didn’t specialize in a discipline?” and “A liberal arts school with an engineering program?” not to mention the most awkward, “Tell me about Swarthmore. Was that some kind of community college?”

Yes, I have an engineering degree, but I am not your typical engineer. Where do I begin?

In the years since I graduated from Swarthmore, I have worked with engineers of all disciplines—civil, mechanical, electrical, software, industrial, chemical, and even liberal arts—and all have this in common: They are exceptionally good at answering questions with an unambiguous Point A and a definite Point B.

Think about an engineer designing a bridge. She literally has a Point A and Point B. The creativity and beauty of the discipline lie within that interstice. But what if we don’t know Point B? What if Point B doesn’t even exist yet? Engineers crave answers, yet not all questions have answers—and, indeed, some of the most important questions do not have a single, universal truth. Rather, they lend a certain internal reflection and subjectivity that engineering by itself does not always afford.

This is why Swarthmore’s engineering program set me up precisely for my career. I work for Puget Sound Energy outside Seattle to determine and promote the value of energy efficiency and renewable resources.

Engineers have historically dominated this field. “This light bulb draws less power than that other one, so it’ll save you energy and money off your utility bill.” Makes an awful lot of sense in a perfectly rational world.

The engineer in me thinks, “Logic good. Logic safe. Irrational scary. Irrational threatening.”

The Swarthmore-matriculated engineer in me thinks, “How do we know this is the right thing to do?” (philosophy) “At the fundamental level, we’re not just replacing old equipment with more efficient equipment; we are in fact attempting to change our customers’ behaviors!” (psychology) “What are the implications to the customer, the utility, the entire Northwest?” (public policy) “And how can we be sure the energy savings are real?” (economics) “We need to look at an inferential analysis!” (statistics) “And how can we visualize these data in meaningful ways?” (art/art history) “How can we get this into a sound, cohesive argument?” (linguistics/literature) “What do you mean you need this done by the end of the day?” (whining) There are so many questions we need to ask!

Are Swarthmore engineering students predisposed to these liberal arts perspectives? Probably. However, I dismissed most humanities and social sciences on my way to college. For me, an engineering education was an inevitability; literature was something my dad read. After a Swarthmore degree in engineering with a minor in art history and a graduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Washington, I realize that I owe Swarthmore a great deal of gratitude for the liberal arts education that galvanized my career.

We need more engineers who chase their truth like a rugger chasing a pterodactyl across Parrish Beach—engineers unsatisfied with Point A’s and Point B’s, engineers with a nonpareil ability to contextualize outside of conventional system boundaries, engineers willing to explore and master nontechnical subjects, engineers unafraid to ask questions that don’t always have answers. The world needs more Swarthmore engineers.