When Norah Albaiz was a high school student in Saudi Arabia, she attended an event organized by the Association of Space Explorers and listened to a speech by Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim woman to have traveled to space.
At that time, Albaiz wasn’t considering engineering as a career path. “I wasn’t really considering anything,” she said.
But when she heard Ansari recount the challenges she faced as a woman blazing a path in a field traditionally dominated by men, Albaiz was filled with resolve. “I thought, ‘If someone out there thinks I can’t do it, then I’m just going to do it to prove them wrong,’” she said.
Ultimately, that led Albaiz to Montana State University, where she is now a junior majoring in chemical engineering. And on Thursday, at the 14th annual Women in Engineering Dinner hosted by MSU’s College of Engineering, she again crossed paths with Ansari, the event’s keynote speaker.
While about 300 women engineering students at MSU mingled with about another 100 faculty, alumni and company recruiters, Albaiz waited in line to meet Ansari. Then, as she told Ansari her story, the two embraced. “Mission accomplished!” Ansari exclaimed. “I’m so happy for you.”
“It’s a very feel-good night,” said Lily Westerhoff, a senior majoring in chemical and biological engineering who helped organize the event as a member of MSU’s Women in Engineering Student Advisory Council. “You come out of it feeling very supported.”
Westerhoff, who grew up east of Billings in the small town of Worden, has attended the event twice before. But this year’s gathering held special significance for her because she met the MSU alumna, Nancy Seleski, who established the scholarship that she received this academic year.
Seleski graduated from MSU in 1986 with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering and has since worked for global innovation company 3M, rising to become a director of supply chain planning. She said she created the scholarship endowment last year to encourage women to persevere in engineering.
“I’m just trying to provide one more angle of encouragement,” she said.
Students lined up at the 3M booth to connect with Seleski and ask her questions. “I like getting to know young women, and talking to them about what a career looks like after you get an engineering degree,” she said.
According to Seleski, a fair number of women work at 3M these days. That’s in contrast to what she remembers of her graduating class at MSU – out of roughly 60 chemical engineering students, she said, “only a handful of us were women.”
The number of women majoring in engineering and computer science at MSU has grown to 654, or nearly 17 percent of the college’s total enrollment. That’s up from less than 11 percent a decade ago.
“As a college, we’ve enacted programs to help support women students, and we’ve hired more women faculty, who serve as role models,” said Christine Foreman, director of the Women in Engineering Program at MSU.
“This dinner is a celebration of women students, faculty and alumni,” she added. “It’s an opportunity for alumni to return and share their experiences, provide encouragement and sometimes even offer students jobs.”
As the attendees took their seats for dinner, Ansari spoke about her engineering career and her life-long dream to travel to space. As a girl growing up in Iran, she would look up at the night sky and imagine going there one day, she said.
Ansari immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager, and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in electronics and computer engineering from George Mason University and a master's degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University. She leveraged her success as a tech entrepreneur into a privately funded trip to the International Space Station in 2006.
She told the crowd that when she was preparing to blast off from Kazakhstan in the Soyuz rocket bound for the space station, a Russian general approached her husband, assuming that he was the cosmonaut.
“After a while my husband looked at him and said, ‘I’m not going, she’s going … You can’t pay me enough to go, she’s the brave one,’” Ansari said, drawing laughs from the crowd. Since then, women have become more accepted in space flight, she said. “I love to see change happen.”
Ansari’s presentation was filled with photos and video of her time en-route to and aboard the space station, where she peered through porthole windows at the Earth against the black backdrop of space and snacked on weightless M&Ms.
Ansari urged the women students to be themselves, dream big and engage with a vision of a positive future while not shying away from the increasingly rapid pace of technological development.
She said she was excited to see so many women at the event and “to be part of creating that future with all of us.”
Jean Sweeney, a vice president of 3M and an MSU alumna who received an honorary doctorate from MSU in 2016, delivered a closing speech.
“When I graduated in chemical engineering, my fellow women engineers and our guests would have filled one table,” she said, looking out across the 40 tables in the room. “It’s a real pleasure for me to see so many wonderful women students.”
Reflecting on her career at 3M, she said she had worked with many women to tackle tough problems. “When you build those teams, and work together to solve those big challenges of the world,” she said, “the differences between us really start to fall away.”
Christine Foreman, College of Engineering dean's office, (406) 994-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org