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April 23, 2024

Engineering to education: How I arrived at AmeriCorps

When my tutors ask me what I studied in college and I respond with “industrial engineering,” I typically get one of two responses: either “I’m not exactly sure what industrial engineering is,” or “So what are you doing here?” I’ll answer both in this post, as I do in my reading center. But what I’ll add here, as I don’t always have time to do in my reading center, is explain what engineering has to do with education, what I hope to do in the future, and why people from all backgrounds – even technical ones – should consider a career in the education industry.

My journey to AmeriCorps at Reading Partners

Going into my senior year of college, I had accepted a return offer from a consulting firm I had interned for that summer. I was so excited! It wasn’t my dream job by any means, but I liked the people I worked with, it paid well, and it was in a city I liked (Minneapolis, Minnesota – one of the Twin Cities). And, it meant I could focus on fully enjoying my senior year instead of job searching. The firm let us choose one of two start dates: summer or fall of 2023. Wanting a longer break between my graduation in May and what I thought would be the start of a long career in corporate America, I selected the fall date. 

Then came the mass layoffs throughout the technology industry. They had overhired during the pandemic, and amid inflation, high interest rates, and people returning to work in-person, were looking to cut costs. Consulting firms were impacted as well. Companies across industries were reducing their spending, and a great way to do that was to stop paying the high cost of hiring consultants. 

an americorps member facing away from the camera towards a sign that reads "take reading with you"

Mostly unfazed and with my job still intact, I graduated from college and commenced my summer travels. About halfway through June, my company notified me that my start date had been pushed back to March of 2024. Knowing I couldn’t sit around and wait until March to start working, and even then couldn’t count on starting in March, I started looking for other opportunities. 

One day, I received a message on Handshake, my university’s career site, that piqued my interest. It read, “We’re a national non-profit that’s tackling the literacy crisis in our nation’s elementary schools…[and] we are currently recruiting for paid AmeriCorps members to join our Fall 2023 cohort.” The message was from an AmeriCorps recruiter, and I was interested for a few reasons. One, I had always been passionate about community service and giving back to others. Two, beginning my senior year, I became unenthusiastic about traditional applications of industrial engineering (more on that later) and was considering applying my skills in the education industry. Plus, logistically, it was in the same city as my consulting job and was a shorter time commitment than PeaceCorps service terms. 

I met with the recruiter that had messaged me and scheduled an interview. Everyone I met with was extremely kind and mission-driven; I could tell the culture of the organization would be a great fit. Because the service term ran through June 2024, I (ironically) would have to ask my consulting firm to delay my start date. They were polite but inflexible, and a couple weeks after I accepted the AmeriCorps offer, actually ended up rescinding all other offers in my cohort. Just like that, I was a future AmeriCorps member.

Allyson decorating a board in a reading center after leaving engineering

The ins and outs of industrial engineering (IE) and how it led to me to education

I think most people think industrial engineers work in construction, which is fair. I didn’t know what industrial engineering was before I started college either. I like to say industrial engineers design processes and systems that work for people. Or, for a more technical definition, we work at the intersection of people, process, and technology, often using data to drive our decisions (which happens to be one of Reading Partners’ values). It’s hands-on in a different way than most engineering disciplines. Have you ever been in a situation, like waiting in a long line somewhere, or using an overly confusing website, in which you thought, “This would be so much better if…” or “This would be so much easier to use if…?” Those are the kinds of projects IEs work on. It’s continuous improvement on steroids.

Typical applications of industrial engineering include manufacturing processes, healthcare systems, and even more broadly, business processes, which is why many IEs go into consulting. I have done internships in both manufacturing and consulting, and while I liked both, I realized my senior year that neither is what I want to do for my career. Hence, my search for more non-traditional applications of IE, like education. If you’re curious or would like more examples, Purdue University has a really nice overview of industrial engineering.

Reading Partners Twin Cities; how engineering led me to educationThe Reading Partners Twin Cities team

My day-to-day as an AmeriCorps member

As a Reading Partners program coordinator, I manage the day-to-day operations of the reading center at New Millennium Academy, one of Minneapolis’ Hmong charter schools. I support tutors as they work one on one with students, track student progress and assign interventions, enter student data, occasionally tutor students, and coordinate with teachers about scheduling conflicts. 

My favorite part of my job by far is forming connections with the students. I’ve also enjoyed learning about the science behind how students learn to read, as well as how to build student comprehension. My engineering background has helped me use data to identify areas for improvement, both for students and for Reading Partners overall. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my position and am glad I got the opportunity to gain work experience in a K-12 environment. It has affected my outlook on the education industry and my ideas about what I hope to do in my career.

a student reads a book as an americorps member points to words on the page

Our education system needs more engineering experts

Engineers are essentially problem-solvers. In our degree, we learn a set of tools to solve complex problems. America’s education system is certainly complex, and most people would agree it is a system that could at least use some improvements. Remember when I said industrial engineers use data to design processes and systems in a way that works for people? I want to examine and/or collect data about which aspects of our education system aren’t working, and collaborate with education thought leaders to develop better ways of operating, to achieve better outcomes for our youth. I may not be as knowledgeable as others on current education policies and practices, but it fascinates me and I’m constantly learning. 

One day I may end up in graduate school, working in education administration, education consulting, or being an executive director for an education nonprofit…the possibilities are almost endless. The IE toolbox I have contains tools that will be useful in education: data analysis, statistics, process mapping, continuous improvement, and human factors, to name a few. Other technical degrees also have tools that would be useful. People with backgrounds in computer science, math, chemistry, medical fields, etc. have gained skills that can be applied to improving our education system. I recently read a brilliant book, Language at the Speed of Sight, by Mark Seidenberg, that details the intersection of phonics, cognitive science, neuroscience, and machine learning. He discusses how schools of education and science could work together to craft science-backed reading curriculums that would improve student reading scores across the country. 

The education of our K-12 students should be one of our nation’s top, if not the top, priority. It is paramount for our youth’s development as informed and socially responsible citizens. The industry needs people from all backgrounds with strong critical thinking skills and diverse skill sets to tackle the problems it currently faces. Even if on the surface it seems like your background has nothing to do with education, I encourage you to think about how you can apply the tools in your toolbox to education, and even if people wonder daily why you’re doing the job you are, I promise you that if education is your passion, your talent and perspective is needed and you belong. 

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