Mentoring is powerful: I ran another program called STEM Fellows in which high school students completed a research project with the support of college student mentors. The high school students then presented at UNH Manchester’s undergraduate research conference. Both groups learned so much from each other. The high school students were deeply invested when supported by a strong mentor, and some of the mentors paired up to complete research together in our labs, one pair conducting tests at a local company. My own mentors have challenged me, supported me, and opened my mind to new ideas.
As part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Kerr.
Emily has taught and supported youth, adult, and educator programs for English learners for over a decade. As the Multilingual Learner Support Coordinator at UNH Manchester, she supports multilingual learners on campus, teaches first-year writing, and runs outreach programs such as the middle and high school Educational Excellence for English Language Learners in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (EXCELL-in-STEM) and adult summer English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs. She earned her B.A. in international studies from The Ohio State University and her M.Ed. in secondary education from UNH Manchester; she holds NH ESOL certification.
Emily is passionate about increasing access to culturally competent and engaging programs for English learners in all fields, particularly STEM. Seeing her students develop their interests and strengths and increase their confidence through programs like EXCELL is what motivates her. She believes everyone should have access to educational opportunities and that we should work toward ensuring the makeup of our educational systems and workforce reflect the rich diversity of our communities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Though I’ve always been interested in language and culture, I’ve had incredible opportunities to support others in STEM. While working at an outdoor publishing company in Seattle, I also volunteered with Seattle Inner City Outings, which led trips for inner city youth to the outdoors. That volunteer work and my subsequent experience working in adult basic education/ESOL programs in New Hampshire — particularly Manchester, a refugee resettlement city with a large immigrant population — really opened my eyes to how inequitable access to opportunities is. I became even more passionate about understanding and decreasing barriers for underrepresented populations and took a job coordinating youth programs focused on STEM content. I’m in a new role now but I continue to run youth and adult programs for English learners in the community.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
What’s interesting is that I was hired as the STEM Discovery Lab Coordinator without much of a STEM background; my supervisor at the time said she was more interested in my background with English learners and my ability to build relationships and community partnerships. Two big projects I took on fueled my interest in women in tech.
First, about three weeks into my new job, I became the regional affiliate coordinator for the National Center for Women & Information Technology’s Aspirations in Computing Award (NCWIT AiC), which recognizes young women in tech and the educators who support them. Not only did I learn very quickly what NCWIT and AiC were, but I was able to plan and deliver an awards ceremony to recognize New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine recipients two months later. Afterward, through an NCWIT grant called AspireIT, I partnered with two of the high-school award recipients to run a summer program called AppInventHer as part of a Girls, Inc. leadership academy for middle school students. They were the tech experts and near-peer mentors and I was able to help them with grant writing, connecting with Girls, Inc., publicity, and logistics. We even had a visit by Senator Maggie Hassan, which was a highlight!
The other project came about when the UNH STEM Teachers’ Collaborative and the STEM Discovery Lab became a regional partner for Code.org, which helps train New Hampshire teachers in computer science (CS). This brought me into meetings with people across the country and learning about computer science and the state of diversity in tech. I met the founder of Code.org, and helped coordinate two summer and academic-year professional learning programs for New Hampshire educators. A highlight was partnering with a Manchester area participant to offer an afterschool EXCELL program in computer science. For some of those students, it was their first experience really learning about CS.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In my first job as a sales assistant at a publishing company, my new supervisor gave me an opportunity to take on more responsibility by calling on some of our national accounts. One of my first appointments was with our biggest account in La Vergne, TN. I made all of the arrangements and flew into Nashville the night before the appointment, determined to prove myself. When I got to the rental car counter, they said, “We can’t rent you a car. Your driver’s license expired 3 months ago.” No amount of pleading worked.
Keep in mind, this was before cell phones and Uber. I took a cab to my hotel and, upon learning from the owner that my account was two miles away, decided to walk to my appointment the next day. This was not an area where people typically walked, so navigating in dress shoes was challenging. When my client found out (I was supposed to take him to lunch but had to ask him to drive), he thought it was hilarious and insisted on introducing me to everyone in the office as the only person who ever walked to an appointment there. He introduced me to others the same way when I saw him at future tradeshows. The next day, the owner of the hotel kindly offered to drive me back to the airport. I piled into car with his entire family and we had a very warm conversation in broken English. What I learned from this experience:
- Don’t let your driver’s license expire.
- You may not get there the way you think you will, but if you use what you have it’s possible to get there. In other words, be resourceful with what you have.
- Some of your worst mistakes end up being the most memorable and, for better or worse, can set you apart.
- Even without shared language, you can communicate kindness.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
UNH Manchester is an urban campus and college that is part of the University of New Hampshire, the state’s public flagship research institution. Many of our students are nontraditional and their backgrounds are diverse. Through a project called, “In Our Own Voices,” nominated students write about their journey to UNH Manchester, and their stories and photos are displayed at the university. In the current gallery, there is a veteran, a single mom, immigrants, refugees, and international students, students with mental health issues, transfer students who thought they’d never make it at college, and more. Many of these students are studying in STEM fields because UNH Manchester is located in the Manchester Millyard, home to many tech companies including Texas Instruments, Pillpack, and DEKA. UNH Manchester works hard to embrace our students and make sure they can be successful, from working closely with community colleges to create smooth pathways for transitioning to the university or understanding the demands of balancing school with work and family obligations and providing students with additional support services, to partnering with local companies and industry. The EXCELL program benefits from the support of companies like Bank of America and Comcast who see the value in investing in education and promoting diversity. Representatives from local tech companies have acted as advisors to our programs and engaged through company tours and mini workshops. All of this gives me hope that the diversity within our student body will help lead to more diversity in the workforce.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Right now, I am really looking at ways to offer quality remote programs in the current pandemic situation. We’ve had to be pretty creative, and though it has been challenging, I’m optimistic that we can be successful. This summer, when we offered our programs remotely for the first time, I wasn’t sure how they would go or even if we’d have enough interest. Our EXCELL program is typically very hands-on, so we put together kits and delivered them to the students. The instructor was incredible, and we had perfect attendance. What students were able to accomplish and showcase in an online platform was amazing. The students’ feedback was all positive and they expressed an increased interest not only in science, but in learning about each other as well. Our adult English-learner program was at capacity and formed an incredible community online. Many of the students are interested in pursuing higher education, and we are helping them explore their options. As challenging as being remote can be, it can open up opportunities and access to resources if we approach it creatively.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Although I think we are making progress, I am not satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM. As I mentioned, my background is in education, so I speak from that perspective. We had a group of high school students in a SeaPerch underwater robotics program that, by chance, ended up being all female. For some, it was their first experience with a hands-on engineering project. To me, that speaks to lack of access and to educational inequity. I think we really need to look at our education systems. When and how are students being exposed to STEM? How are we encouraging equitable access? Do female and minority students see themselves represented in the curriculum? Are we integrating STEM with other content areas? What messages are we giving students about who can be successful in science or math classes? How are we teaching — is it hands on and engaging and connected to the real world? Are we supporting our teachers so that they feel confident enough to teach STEM? How can we work with outside entities to support work in STEM? What opportunities are available outside of the school day? We need to address these questions if we want to change the status quo.
It’s really important that changing the status quo and increasing access to opportunities in STEM is a collective effort. The reason our programs can run successfully is that they are partnerships with schools and industry and are financially supported by companies that invest in education and workforce development. For example, we met several times with Bank of America to make sure the EXCELL program would meet our common goals.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Though it’s changing, women in tech are often in the minority. One of our female students told me that during her internship in IT, she was the only woman in meetings and that the men often talked over her. She was relieved when the internship experience ended. In circumstances like this, it’s sometimes hard for women to feel confident about their place in STEM fields. I’m encouraged to see many more mentor networks being established. I’m also encouraged to see men recognize some of the challenges faced by women and work to ease those challenges. I think we need to continue to build those support and mentor networks.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that STEM is more of a “male” path. Just look at computer programming; we often think of it as a male profession. In fact, many of the earliest programmers were women. Same with some of the earliest conservationists. Women have made significant contributions in STEM, but have not always received the recognition that men have. I sometimes hear that programs and initiatives to support women in STEM are somehow at the expense of men, but I don’t believe it is an either-or situation. There is a push to increase the number of women in STEM fields because women are still under-represented but having a more diverse workforce doesn’t mean eliminating opportunities for men. We need to make room for both.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You don’t have to be a tech expert or a woman in tech to support women in tech. The key is to figure out how to combine different people’s strengths and experience.
- We need to listen to and make room for younger generations: Providing more and more opportunities for conversations and listening is so important.
- Mentoring is powerful: I ran another program called STEM Fellows in which high school students completed a research project with the support of college student mentors. The high school students then presented at UNH Manchester’s undergraduate research conference. Both groups learned so much from each other. The high school students were deeply invested when supported by a strong mentor, and some of the mentors paired up to complete research together in our labs, one pair conducting tests at a local company. My own mentors have challenged me, supported me, and opened my mind to new ideas.
- Value partnerships: The programs I run are successful because of community and industry support. This helps ensure that we are not operating in a bubble and are developing skills that meet real needs. The relationships I’ve made through these partnerships also help me to facilitate connections for others.
- Be resourceful and empathetic: I was once in a committee meeting that was quickly devolving into a complaint session over the lack of response to an employee survey sent out over email. Once we recognized that email can be overwhelming, we came up with the idea to have computers available at our next all-staff meeting and allow time for survey completion. The barriers to success are often simpler than we think.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I’ll never forget the time a colleague who had made a mistake on something time sensitive thanked me for not getting mad and instead helping fix what we could in the time we had. She told me she would have been yelled at in her last job, which was one of the reasons she had left. That really made me think about how important it is to acknowledge mistakes, help others find solutions and move on. It’s also important to not always be the expert and to recognize others’ expertise. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great leaders, and they are always the ones who shine the light on others, not themselves.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I do not manage a large team at UNH Manchester, but my work does involve managing community efforts. One minute I might be arranging for the mayor to speak at a program graduation or writing a grant proposal and the next, arranging bus transportation or food for students. It’s important to recognize what role each person plays and acknowledge their contribution, and to give others the opportunity to lead and develop their skills. Do the work to build relationships and know what’s going on in the community so you can help others by tapping into their interests and strengths or by creating networks. Facilitating and supporting those connections can be really important; you don’t always need or want to be the person others come to for help.
None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So many! I could fill pages, starting with my family. My students remind me every day why I do what I do. I also have many of what I call my “good juju people” and “unofficial mentors,” some of whom don’t even know I consider them mentors. I will specifically mention two who are connected to my current role.
Dr. Judy Sharkey was my advisor and one of my instructors while I earned my master’s in education at UNH Manchester. She challenged me and made sure my learning experiences were authentic, with enormous respect for my contributions. In my very first class with her, she had me connecting with people in the community, conducting investigations, teaching lessons, and reflecting on my own assumptions and biases. She continues to be an exemplar of lifting up others, making community connections, and fighting for equity in education.
Michael Pugh, who passed away last year, managed the EXCELL and ESOL programs at UNH Manchester before me and truly was one of the best human beings I’ve met. He always made time for people, put relationships above all else and had a way of making people feel special and supported. His students loved him. I sometimes will say to myself, “What would Michael do?” as a reminder to keep people and relationships at the heart of what I’m doing.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One of my mentees recently told me that he finally feels a sense of community in his life. I really hope that through my work, I’ve encouraged others to challenge themselves, feel confident, and increase their sense of community. In follow-up surveys, students who take part in our programs often say they have a greater interest in science and increased confidence in their courses and/or their English and that they are less likely to give up. Program leaders and student mentors say their leadership skills have grown. To me, when I am able to help others feel confident or successful in their own abilities, that is goodness in the world.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Honestly, I’d just really love to see education receive the support and funding that is necessary. I read an article last year about a pop-up school in Brooklyn that was a project of the Brooklyn Public Library and Prospect Park Alliance. It was an open air university with free classes taught by immigrants, and the classes filled. There’s often a false and negative narrative about immigrants in this country, many of whom are highly educated and qualified in STEM fields but underemployed here, that does not recognize their assets, skills, and contributions. How great would it be to be able to fund and offer more of these pop-ups as educational opportunities?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Someone told me that the first rule of improv is to always respond to your partner with, “Yes, and….” So often we want to find reasons why something can’t be done instead of thinking of ways it can be. Mistakes will happen and things won’t always go according to plan, but we sometimes overreact. If we can say, “Yes, this happened, and what can we do about it,” we can work our way around problems using the resources available to us.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I would love to meet Michelle Obama. She is such an advocate for girls’ education and she always tries to lift others. The other person is Cristina Mittermeier, a National Geographic photographer, conservationist, and cofounder of the Canadian-based conservation organization Sea Legacy. She’s originally from Mexico and got a degree in biochemical engineering, but it took incredible perseverance for her to do that; she could have easily been on a different path. What I love about her is that she combines her science with her creative photography and is a leading conservationist. She also encourages girls in STEM and is an incredible role model.