Building can start now

By Billie Johnson

One of the first items on my bucket list is to build a real bucket list. I know I will die before doing all I want, so I let bucket list items float in my head rather than write them down. Besides, most of my jumbled inventory is built as I experience something spectacular and think, “That should have been on my bucket list. Check.”

This may not be how bucket lists work — by adding items after the fact — but because it’s my list, I get to build it however I want.

Last week, I simultaneously checked off and added being the keynote speaker at Idaho State’s 15th annual “Women in Work” conference.  Each spring, ISU’s Center for New Directions hosts over 225 girls in grades 9 through 12 from regional high schools, ISU students, and community members to learn about occupations in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Degrees and certifications in STEM can provide a livable income, employment benefits, and professional opportunities extending beyond a minimum wage job and into a successful career.

This was an exclusive opportunity and an honor. I’d been nervous since I was asked last September. They wanted a head shot for their program and website, and although they said my “newspaper one” would work, I hesitated.

I am wearing a Ninja Turtle T-shirt in this picture and it was taken at the Dallas World Aquarium on a summer vacation. Comic book T-shirts may be standard attire for an engineer, but I wanted my keynote persona, both in promotional materials and on the day of the event, to be polished and professional.

A friend of mine took a distinguished headshot featuring makeup and plucked eyebrows, but I struggled on the morning of the conference. I had one last dollop of hair gel that I burned calories to squeeze out of the tube.

Then on autopilot, I rubbed it right on my cheeks like face lotion. I was hours away from the stage to portray a brilliant and inspirational engineer hoping to inspire young women, and now I was out of hair gel. At least I had “Hot ‘n’ Sexy” cheeks. It was a miracle that the mascara and deodorant ended up where they were supposed to.

This conference showcases women in various STEM careers so attendees can learn about opportunities they might not know exist and envision themselves in a STEM career down the road.

My hair gel fiasco provided a comedic opening for my talk and allowed an authentic opportunity to connect with universal feelings of nervousness and inadequacy. What female teen (or male adult) doesn’t face these feelings?

I showed pictures of me in a pink tutu at age three, in my Girl Scout uniform at age seven, and with my trombone in high school. I showed myself in a bike helmet and an ISU T-shirt during my college volleyball years. I hoped the ballerinas, Girl Scouts, band members and athletes might see bits of themselves in any of the pictures and were able to further visualize attending college or embarking upon a STEM career.

My talk was rich in the “Engineer” part of STEM because I’m an “E.” I talked about a fragment of what engineers build: bridges, roller coasters, electronics, methodologies, semiconductors, process flows, prosthetics, networks. The list is infinite. (And yes, for the “Math” folks in STEM, “infinite” is debatable, but let’s do that another day.)

I was clear. I wanted the girls to open their eyes to the possibilities and promise of STEM. I conceded, however, that despite the presentations, hands-on activities, the amazing women they’d meet, and the encouragement they’d receive, they may choose a different path entirely.

I begrudgingly let them know that’s okay, but I still hope they become women who build.
Women can build families. We can build medical practices. We can build generations of students in becoming teachers. Women can have a hand in building darn near anything.

Like we need our foundations, bridges and educations to be strong, our society needs strong women, too. We are half of the population — think of all that is built upon or from us. If we as women are going to build anything, we need to be willing and able to stand strong, to be firm, and to help build each other.

Tearing down happens all around us, but we don’t have to be a part of it. We can build. I encouraged every girl in the audience, whether they consider a career in STEM or not, to become a woman who builds. It’s not always easy, but the beauty in building is that it can start any time. Whether it’s a bucket list, the next generation of STEM professionals, yourself or others, building can start now.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree from Idaho State University. She works as an engineer, is an avid community volunteer, and maintains a blog about her adventures in a cow suit at