Successful Student Profile | Sarah Aholt Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering and Management | Oklahoma State University (Stillwater, OK)
When I was growing up, I knew I was pretty decent at school, and I knew I loved to read. I knew the older kids in my geometry class often asked to copy my homework. I grew up in what I would consider a typical small town environment (I suppose I consider it “typical” because I never knew any different).
My dad had a degree in drafting and design, my mom was a teacher – both instilling things in me either through DNA or from an early age – that I wouldn’t come to fully appreciate until it was time for me to explore a career of my own, or maybe even later. My dad ended up taking over the family insurance business but was always building things, improving things, tinkering in the garage or in the yard – building a deck for our above-ground pool, an obstacle course, bike ramps, or a swing set in the backyard for my brother and me.
My mom excelled in her career as a science teacher and gave so many students a love for learning by making her class so fun – by dressing up as an astronaut and decorating her room to feel like kids were walking into space, or fostering experimentation in her science lab, or assignments like “build a robot using only trash” – helping kids to see science everywhere in the world around them.
So although I didn’t realize it, I had these primary people in my life, walking in STEM, instilling those interests and ways of thinking into me.
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Maybe because of the general ease I’d had in my schooling, when I got to college at Oklahoma State University, I had a really hard time narrowing down what my future would hold. To me, choosing a major felt so final! How could I possibly know all of my options well enough to appropriately select one I’d find interesting and fulfilling – for the rest of my life?
Now, at 36, I have lived 18 more years and seen the way life has played out – in spite of all of my planning. I filtered through a few different colleges and majors in my first three semesters at OSU – physical therapy, social worker, accounting, marketing – I don’t even remember all of them. I’d always thought I wanted to be an architect, but in 8th grade, I’d had an algebra teacher scoff when I said that and say, “Do you know how much MATH it takes to be an architect?” That was all it took to throw me off of that path.
Was that because I was a female? Because I wasn’t good enough at math? Because he was a jerk teacher? I’m disappointed in myself to say that through that one interaction, I was easily deterred from math majors, despite having completed all of the math courses my high school had to offer, with top grades.
At college, I eventually heard about the Johnson-O’Connor aptitude test, offered through a center in Dallas. I learned about the concept of “aptitudes” as natural talents or abilities, and how the test aimed to identify an individual’s aptitudes and match those up with other people with similar aptitudes, and the career fields where they had experienced success. The idea still concerned me because I felt like I was so intent on figuring out what major would be right for me, that I wouldn’t be able to take a test without overthinking the questions, and causing a bias.
Then I learned the method of testing used at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation – the testing would take place over the course of a day, and those being tested would be asked to perform various tasks: timed trials using instruments to sort small objects, putting 3D puzzles together, listening to sounds, recalling the placement and removal of objects, among others. Through those activities, the team there would then identify where individuals might find success.
I thoroughly enjoyed the test – I’ve always been interested in contests, timed trials, and personality differences. Board races, anyone? Typically, those being tested would learn of two or three aptitudes (out of the twenty they tested for) upon completion. I remember the reviewer said to me, “The good news is, you have 13 aptitudes. The bad news is, you have 13 aptitudes.”
Meaning – they couldn’t really narrow things down much more than I already had. However, my strongest aptitude was for spatial relation, which typically leads to engineering. I remember the person reviewing my results with me encouraged me to explore Industrial Engineering – “because in that major, you’ll find the most females”.
The Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering and Management is sometimes seen as a blend between the business and engineering disciplines, and at that time, classes tended to be about 1:1 male to female. Without any hesitation, I was thrilled to have some direction – I marched myself right over to the engineering college and changed my major. I started intro to engineering the second semester of my sophomore year. It’s interesting now to think about the emphasis placed on females in STEM and then consider some of the examples I had that showed I might have been occasionally pigeon-holed because of my gender, without even realizing it at the time.
I spent the next three and a half years caught between loving some and hating some of my classes, just trying to get graduated as quickly as I could. Since that was my experience, it’s all I know – does everyone feel that way? Because of my delay in choosing my major, I ended up graduating in five years, with quite a few extra credit hours that did not apply toward my major.
I discovered when I went to start looking for jobs that many of the aspects of industrial engineering I loved – the efficiency, production, operations research side – mostly took place in factories or assembly lines, which was not the kind of environment I really wanted to be a part of. I also discovered that industrial engineering can sometimes be seen as a “jack of all trades, master of none” sort of degree. We can fill quite a few roles, but not many that necessarily have to be filled by industrial engineers.
Career in Engineering Management:
That said, I accepted my first job in a management training program with ConocoPhillips in Bartlesville, Oklahoma through their Global Facilities Management sector. I, along with ten or 12 other recent grads, launched into a well-paying career in oil and gas.
I spent time in safety departments, at a research facility, and managing construction projects. See? Jack of all trades. My time at the research facility and managing the construction projects presented interesting opportunities.
I was a young female in a very male-dominated environment. Sometimes that worked to my advantage, and sometimes it was the opposite. Learning to present yourself as a strong, capable adult became second nature as I led and sought to gain respect from men twice my age with 20 or 30 more years of experience than I had.
I drove my company truck and wore my walkie-talkie with the best of them – learning the basics of plumbing, electricity, fire alarms and basic construction. I learned the importance of listening to the experts – I spent time on my hands and knees laying carpet, in my hardhat testing fire systems and smoke detectors, picking up necessities at the local plumbing store and welding shop.
I also here got to experience the crossover of the business side of things – I presented findings and requests to leaders of the company, I answered to management for budgets and invoicing, I spoke about and lobbied for crew and subcontractor hiring and firing, and was ultimately responsible for the performance we achieved.
After four years, I decided to leave Bartlesville to move to a bigger city closer to home, and called upon one of my old classmates from OSU to get my foot in the door at Tinker Air Force Base in the manpower department of the 72nd Air Base Wing.
While at Tinker, my colleagues and I were charged with examining the various groups in the Department of Defense and trying to use scientific method to determine workloads and resulting required manpower. You can imagine how difficult it is to assign time to tasks for different people, and how territorial people might be about their work, and also how difficult it is to determine how long things take – it’s so natural to misjudge that – try it for yourself.
How long do you spend a day on email? On your phone, on instagram or twitter? It’s nearly impossible. I then moved to a team lead role and was working to oversee the development of work standards for aircraft repair across the three Air Logistics Centers in the US. Here again, as a qualified engineer, I earned a leadership position above people older than me, and with more experience.
I personally found this situation, with military members, more difficult than I had at ConocoPhillips. In the Air Force, and I suspect most branches of military, there is a certain protocol to who deserves your respect, and how people are moved up the proverbial ladder. As a newcomer with no military experience, I was obviously seen as lacking and therefore didn’t enjoy my career at Tinker as much as I’d hoped.
After almost three years there, I decided to head back to a more corporate environment and moved to Chesapeake Midstream, where I was involved in Project Controls. I spent my time mostly doing data analysis and scheduling. At that time, around 2011, the oil and gas business in Oklahoma was going and blowing – things were moving so fast, and CHK Midstream was a relatively young company, so there hadn’t been time previously to examine performance and look for improvements.
That’s where my skill set came into play. I got to be a part of construction planning, on the job site in steel-toed boots and FRC (not my favorite), but also got to spend quite a bit of time in Excel, forecasting, charting, analyzing – all things I really get into. Unfortunately, that upward trend in oil and gas didn’t last too much longer. Just after my fifth anniversary with the company and just before the birth of my second child, I got laid off, along with about 20% of the OKC workforce. Since then, I have chosen to stay home and take care of my children.
As I look back now at the path that I’ve ended up taking to get where I am….I could never have predicted myself as a stay at home mom. But it’s interesting to think about those aptitudes I learned of back in 2000.
I still see them showing up in this new life – through the way I lay out ingredients and cook meals, how I track and project our home income and expenses, the routines I put in place for my kids, how I schedule things and store things. I’m not sure how much of that comes from the aptitudes I had previously or how much that way of thinking taught during my undergrad really was rooted in my brain.
My brother has had success also in oil and gas, but with a finance degree. I remember when he was working on his MBA, he would occasionally send me some of his homework problems to see if I could help in any way.
One of those times, I sent him back a solution and how I’d gotten there and I remember he just shook his head and said something about how that was amazing, his brain just didn’t work like that – he’d started the problem from the beginning, and I’d basically looked at where I wanted to end up and used the information I had to determine how to get there.
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