One way to look at many of the challenges facing the engineering community is to focus on the ways in which engineering systems (educational or professional) relate to the individual. From K-12 outreach for encouraging interest in engineering, to first-year programs for keeping incoming students interested and invested through graduation, to transition work looking at why some graduates pursue engineering careers and others do not – these efforts all involve discussions about how the individual fits or does not fit within the system and what the individual can do to help develop a better fit. There exists, however, immense rigidity in educational systems that try, generally, to employ one-size-fits-all approaches to education, largely ignoring (or even never asking) how the system fits or does not fit within the individual and what the system can do to help develop a better fit.
This study explores the issue of personal-professional identity alignment through an autoethnography about myself. I am a senior undergraduate civil engineering student, examining my developing professional identity in relation to my personal identity – specifically, my strong desire to help others and improve society. My work focuses on formative experiences spurred by my involvement in a research project about engineers’ imaginaries of “the public.” My involvement – specifically content analysis of engineering documents and transcription of interviews with engineering students and faculty – exposed me to ideas that have both challenged and supported my sense of engineering identity. I used short journal entries to reflect on quotes from documents or from interviewees that captured my attention, oftentimes spurring new thoughts about who I am or want to be, personally or professionally. Three of these journal entries were further developed into narratives to showcase moments that helped to solidify my understanding of my motivations to become an engineer, my preparation in school, and prospects of merging my personal identity with my future engineering career.
Autoethnography is a methodology whereby the researcher uses his/her own experience to explore social/cultural issues. It comes out of recognition that the researcher is not a value-free observer, but influences and is influenced by the very subject they are studying. Autoethnographies focus on moments of change for the researcher that are then used to highlight larger cultural contexts. In this work, I use autoethnography to explore the evolving development of my personal and professional identities in the context of a specific engineering education system, and to identify nodes of alignment and misalignment between those identities.
Looking at my experiences through an identity-alignment lens, I see evidence of misalignment between who I am and want to be, and who I need to be to succeed as an engineering undergraduate student. This misalignment brings into question my fit within the system – the way I was trained, what I was trained for, and the larger views of the engineering profession with respect to how engineers should contribute to society. If engineering is intended to be a profession that helps others, why then do I feel unique in this personal desire to address social needs and also significantly unprepared, as I near graduation, to enact my vision?
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