Paths to engineering: Students shape their future by expanding academic focus.

For Connor Richeson, Benita Amouzou and Mary Fahiem, exploring their academic journey led to a greater understanding of both career goals and ultimate passion for engineering.

(From left to right): Connor Richeson, Benita Amouzou, Mary Fahiem.
(From left to right): Connor Richeson, Benita Amouzou, and Mary Fahiem

The journey undergraduate students take is often filled with unexpected twists and turns, especially within the ever-evolving landscape of engineering. As new technologies and fields emerge, students are often left wondering if they have explored all avenues available to them.

Connor Richeson, Benita Amouzou and Mary Fahiem took a leap of faith by looking beyond traditional academic paths to find their niche in engineering. While this decision brought uncertainty, each student unveiled new career opportunities which broadened their horizons of what engineering can be.

Connor Richeson – Chemistry and Chemical and Life Science double major

Rather than spending time outside, Connor Richeson spent his free time during high school watching chemistry videos online, curious about the way chemicals change and interact within our world. His interest eventually grew into a strong passion, and when he got accepted to VCU he knew he wanted to pursue chemistry as a major and career. 

“Chemistry is the only thing I’ve ever really had a strong interest in,” Richeson said.

As Richeson began preparing for his first semester, he stumbled upon the Chemical and Life Science Engineering (CLSE) department, where he saw professors conducting research on the same topics that sparked his initial love of chemistry. Richeson was not only excited, but surprised to see the differences between chemistry and chemical engineering.

“It’s a very different environment,” Richeson said. “While chemistry is mainly focused on just chemistry, chemical engineering is rounded through physics and physics-based math.”

Richeson, now a double major in chemistry and CLSE, says the addition of chemical engineering gave him the opportunity to work in a catalysis research lab during his first year at VCU.

“I really love CLSE,” Richeson said. “I ended up adding chemistry as a second major because I really love both chemistry and chemical engineering. Career wise, it’s a huge leg up for me to have experience in both chemistry and chemical engineering.” 

Benita Amouzou – Biomedical Engineering major, Electrical Engineering minor

Benita Amouzou, like Richeson, was originally interested in chemistry.

The turning point for Amouzou came after reading an article about biomedical engineering applications at NASA and the engineers who build systems to ensure astronaut’s safety while in space. She realized her passion was centered around the ability to work with people, and a major in biomedical engineering would allow her to do just that.

The connection she felt to the College of Engineering, particularly the biomedical engineering department, and her professors was instantaneous.

“I felt so taken care of in biomedical engineering, I think because they're so focused on the success of each individual student and the major’s people-centered nature,” Amouzou said.

Despite Amouzou’s satisfaction with her decision, it was not one that came easily. Specifically, Amouzou highlights the struggle of going into a male-dominated field as a woman of color.

“I initially didn't consider engineering at all, because I didn't see myself as the image of an engineer and I think that really played into the struggle I faced,” said Amouzou.

Facing this lack of representation and her own impostor syndrome was daunting, but Amouzou’s career goals drove her to push forward and her confidence grew as she experienced the collaborative, hands-on nature of engineering and the uplifting support of her peers and professors.

“Things are changing,” said Amouzou. “More and more women are entering the workforce in every engineering discipline. There is no set image for what an engineer looks like, an engineer looks like anybody who has the passion for engineering.”

Mary Fahiem – Chemical and Life Science Engineering major

Unlike Richeson and Amouzou, Mary Fahiem initially came to VCU with an interest in biology. At the time, she felt this matched her aspirations of contributing to research in sustainability and medicine. However, as she delved into her studies, she realized the broadness of biology alone didn’t adequately align with her specific career goals.

Fahiem found the CLSE department in the same way Richeson had, after reading an article from VCU news and was enticed by the unique research opportunities.

“Specifically, I read articles about research conducted by Natassja Lewinski, Ph.D., about coral reef regeneration research and was drawn in,” Fahiem said. “I began to do more research on the major and was really inspired by the research the CLSE department is doing right now to make the world a better and more sustainable place.”

After further inspection of CLSE, Fahiem realized her interest in the department went beyond the research to many other aspects. She began making connections with professors and fellow students, even joining the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) at VCU. 

“I've had the opportunity to learn a lot about research at VCU and gotten to meet many of the CLSE staff. I love that it's a smaller department because it means every student is special in their own way and has unique opportunities.”

In the field of engineering, Richeson, Amouzou, and Fahiem, despite pursuing distinct career paths, find a common ground. The unique journey taken by each of these students and the diverse motivations that inspire them shed light on the fear, uncertainty and ultimate reward of redefining one’s academic focus.