Q&A with Olivia Cordova ’18
One of Mines’ newest alumnae, Olivia Cordova ’18, received her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering this past May. As a student, Cordova was an active member of the Mines community, serving as a resident assistant for the Nucleus Scholar program—a community that supports and mentors first-generation college students—vice president of outreach for the Society of Women Engineers and more. Earlier this year, Cordova received a Martin Luther King Jr. Recognition Award for efforts in educating the Mines community on the benefits of having a diverse campus and for advocating for first-generation college student needs.
Cordova recently sat down with Mines Magazine to discuss what it’s like to be a woman entering the workforce—she starts working for the Bureau of Reclamation this summer—her experiences of being a first-generation college graduate and her advice for other women pursuing education and careers in STEM.
Mines Magazine: What inspired you to study electrical engineering?
Olivia Cordova: As a kid, I was always good at math and science, but my passion was really in writing and reading. I’m still really passionate about that, but in high school, I went to a college fair and my dad had heard of Mines.He went up to the woman at the Mines booth and said, “My daughter really wants to be an English teacher, how can we get her to do that?” And of course, Mines doesn’t have degree options in English, but then her and I got to talking about all the classes I was in, and she said I should come to campus and check it out. When I did, I fell in love with the Mines community and knew this was where I should be.
As for choosing to major in electrical engineering, I took physics in high school and really loved doing all of the equations and calculations, but the kinematics part of physics didn’t make sense to me—but the magnetism, electricity really clicked. When I got to Mines, I decided I wanted to do electrical engineering, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a small community—not a lot of people choose to study electrical engineering, especially women—but we had our own little group.
MM: Did it deter you to know there weren’t many women studying electrical engineering?
OC: Not really. Even in high school, I was one of about three girls taking all of the same science classes, and I was taking all the advanced classes. When I got to Mines, people warned me to be aware of the ratio [of women to men], but it didn’t really affect me that much. I really enjoyed hanging out with the guys, and then there was SWE and other things if I wanted to hang out with the girls. It was a really good balance.
MM: What do you plan to do with your degree?
OC: I’m going to work for the Bureau of Reclamation. With that, I want to move more into current power system analysis. The way we do power is kind of old-school, and it hasn’t really changed ever.That’s a good thing, because we still have power, but now, the more networks we add, the more complicated it gets. As long as we keep developing new technologies to integrate the different aspects of the power system, then it will have better interconnectivity. What I want to focus on is microgrids and new technologies that can further the development of power systems.
MM: What was it like being a first-generation student? Why did you want to get involved to help other first-generation students at Mines and help diversify campus?
OC:I had no idea what to expect. Some people were really nervous, some people were super excited, but I was just unsure. It was different from high school—in high school, I was all about studying. But I came here, and it was more about the people, and that’s why I loved Mines so much—I loved the people who were there to support me.
I happened to be thrown into the Nucleus Program, which turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. It was a really good environment, and all of us were first-generation students. We all struggled together and made the same mistakes, so we became a close-knit family—like a family away from family.
I experienced a lot of support systems. I know a lot of other first-generation students haven’t necessarily had that support, but of course now we have the Nucleus Program and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, so we’re headed in the right direction.
I was a resident assistant for Nucleus, and I’ve been working with the Mines Foundation to get the Bliss Endowed Scholarship going and basically just advocating for first-generation students to have that support system.
MM: What do you think are the advantages of having women on project teams or in leadership positions in industry or STEM fields?
OC: I believe women think differently. I heard a past Mines president speak at an IEEE conference who said that the most important advice someone ever gave to him involved a story about two scientists who went to Kenya and were trying to figure out what was spreading a disease. The men working on the project thought,“What kind of medication can we give these people to cure them?” But the women scientists thought, “Well, what is causing this disease in the first place?” Instead of solving a problem, it was resolving a problem.
People often say women are more emotional, but I think that gives us a different perspective on science—it’s not all about numbers and calculations; it’s also about human life in general.
MM: What’s next for you in terms of your career or future aspirations?
OC: Right now, I’m taking it day by day. My plan originally was to graduate in three years and then get a bachelor’s or master’s degree in writing to become a technical writer. I’d be able to take really technical subjects and rewrite them in layman’s terms for the general public.
I did graduate in three years, but the Bureau is also really nice, and everyone who works there has been there forever and really loves it. It’s a really good community with a lot of opportunities, so I think I definitely want to expand that.
I also love working with kids, so I still want to try working in the classroom or come back and talk to people and be a continuous influence and support system for others.
MM: How do you think Mines prepared you for your career beyond the skills you learned in the classroom?
OC: I also did research with Katie Johnson and Stephanie Claussen on sociotechnical integration in engineering education.That was based on the fact that in the classroom, you are so technically focused with calculations and equations and how things work, whereas what we really need engineers to do is also work on the social aspect—to also recognize that what you’re doing is actually affecting someone. Sometimes that’s not necessarily clear in the classroom.
I had really good luck with the professors I’ve worked with and the classes I’ve taken that I’ve been exposed to both sides of this. It was never just “solve this problem,” it was also, “how is this problem going to affect somebody?” That was always the test question: Who are the stakeholders and why do they matter? That idea has really prepared me to work in the field, because I won’t have that expectation of crunching numbers all day. I’ll actually be able to communicate with people and understand their perspective.
MM: What advice do you have for other women or first-generation students looking to pursue education and careers in STEM?
OC: A lot of people have said to me, sometimes you just have to play the game—that’s the way it is. But I really think you can make your own game.
For example, some people told me, you’re not going to graduate in three years at Mines, that’s impossible. But I did it. You definitely want to prove people wrong, especially going into a field where there is still that bias.People don’t really talk about it anymore because times are changing, but the reality is that it’s still there. People need to realize that women can be just as successful in these fields, so I think making them aware, teaching children and campus about different opportunities and expanding the support system is key.
Read about other alumnae who are succeeding in STEM and pursuing positive change in the workplace in our feature story, Wonder women.