Tech breaks, makes new stereotypes

For eight weeks this summer I was unknowingly assigned the task of representing Tech. While at the University of Maryland for a minority summer research program, I met students and faculty members from a wide range of schools. Question after question, I began to feel like Tech was in a league of its own.

“Where is Georgia Tech located?” Once I answered this question, most people then asked if Tech is a true urban campus. Aside from the skyscrapers looming high above and the high crime rates, we have no indication on our campus that we are located in the capital of the South. We are a little tight on space, but our campus still feels enclosed, like our own and not one shared with the busy streets and people that surround us.

“Is Georgia Tech a fun school?” would be a common follow-up question. I find the city offers a bounty of opportunities for entertainment, but don’t know whether the new and mostly car-less freshmen are aware of them and have easy access to them since most things in Atlanta are so decentralized. Also, Tech has not yet succeeded in developing a neighborhood with a personality of its own the way other universities have. When I count things to do within walking distance from Tech that would appeal to college students, the list is rather short.

“What’s it like to go to an engineering school?” Many faculty members in particular would ask me that, as I was in Maryland for a program in the social sciences. From the point of view of an EIA major, going to Tech is, well, interesting. My experience is surely different from that of a student attending a small liberal arts college or a large traditional university in terms of the size of my departments and the attention and funding thus awarded to them.

But on the flip side, this means my education is also better-rounded and has a distinct and perhaps more marketable focus on science, technology and innovation. I am told that the computing courses I initially found unnecessary and the rigor of the mathematics courses that we love to grumble about will likely offer me a competitive advantage when I apply for jobs or for graduate school admission.

“So is it hard?” Here I felt I was given an opportunity to vindicate my peers in the hard sciences and engineering majors for the countless hours spent studying for seemingly impossible exams and complaining about ridiculously low class averages. I wanted to exclaim, “Yes, it’s hard!”

I would opt instead to tell stories of how it is not uncommon for first and second-year students to switch to ‘easier’ majors or even transfer, or how we have chosen to label ourselves by year rather than class status thanks to the prevalence of fifth and sixth-year students. The mere fact that we have problems with our retention and graduation rates due to the difficulty of some majors is a reflection of what makes Tech different.

“Is Georgia Tech diverse?” was another common question given the nature of my program. Some assumed Tech was probably not diverse because of its location and academic focus, but I would explain that Tech just possesses a different kind of diversity. While we rank number one in graduating the most African-American engineers, for instance, the racial and ethnic breakdown of our student population is still not that diverse by most standards.

Only 11 percent of our students were black or Hispanic last fall. Yet at Tech, the most popular last name for incoming freshmen two years ago was “Patel”. Another shocker to most people was our startlingly uneven gender distribution, with a 70 percent male student body last fall. After the initial surprise, most people would joke, “So it works out really well for the girls, huh?” This question I left unanswered.

Whatever the case, I have never felt out of place as a minorty, whether because I am female, Hispanic, a liberal arts major, a commuter, or a transfer student. Rather, I always felt like I fit right in, a true sign that Tech is reinventing itself, breaking and creating new stereotypes and embracing its unique quirks for all they’re worth.