Editorial Comment July 25, 2002
There's one benefit to engineering schools that never gets mentioned in admission brochures or the offices of high-school guidance counselors. Sure, you can get a solid grounding in math and physics. And if you graduate, you will have a Bachelor of Science degree documenting that fact along with good job prospects. But the unmentioned bonus is instant entry into what I call the Silent Order of Engineers.
There are no dues, no rules, and no formal meetings. There used to be a uniform of sort. It was a white shirt and tie, suit, a pocket-protector stuffed with multicolor pens and mechanical pencils, and a haircut that would pass muster in any army. This all went away with dress-down work environments and as more women joined the club. Meetings, always impromptu, are usually held at a bar, hotel lounge, or restaurant. The meetings revolve around the timeless tales of how tough it was back in engineering school, how today's students have it too easy, and who has had the most clueless nonengineering boss.
Engineering college seems to be one of those near-traumatic group events almost everyone endures sometime in their life, one in which few escape unscathed and not everyone makes it through. Usually the events last at least a few weeks, involve a degree of pain, discomfort, and possibly embarrassment, and contain lots of character-building exercises.
Some events are trivial in retrospect, like grade-school dance classes, being an altar boy, summer camp, and marching band. Others are more intense. Combat and prison come to mind. Earning an engineering degree falls somewhere in between.
For many students, engineering school is a real eye-opener. It's often their first time away from home, the first time they aren't among the smartest in class, and the first they ever see a flock of Cs on their report card. Some classmates don't come back after the first semester. And every semester thereafter, the class inevitably gets smaller and smaller.
Another character-building event, one that parallels engineering school, is basic military training. It's another drastically strange environment with a syllabus designed to make you a little crazy. There are technical subjects to master -- too technical for some -- plus a large dose of training peculiar to the military. Running three miles before the sun rises, crawling beneath barbed wire and live fire, and saluting everyone in a uniform aren't everyone's idea of training, but it does teach discipline.
Like engineering school, basic training lasts long enough to watch upper classes move on while several new classes come in right behind. Trainees also drop out left and right, never to be heard from again. Those that survive, even some who don't, end up with a litany of horror stories to tell over beers and at barbecues. It also generates an instant bond whenever two or more ex-military meet one another.
I'm sure you've had the same experience as an engineer. You meet someone for the first time, discover they also earned a degree in engineering, and then spend the next four hours rehashing the "good old" days. What you've really done is conduct one of those spur-of-the-moment gatherings of the Silent Order. You talk about everything from the crazy calculus teacher everyone seems to get, no matter what school they attended, to the almost universal inedible dorm food.
So what were your most character-building experiences in engineering school? That work-study job, from midnight to 8 a.m., baby-sitting a cow recently implanted with an artificial heart? The guy down the hall with the Dave Clark Five collection and oversized speakers? A final semester consisting of required classes that can't be dropped or flunked? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Stephen Mraz