Engineer finds success in higher education administration
One engineer shares her journey from silicone manufacturing to deanship
Jennifer Little Edmonds, PhD, works as dean of the Georgian Court University School of Business and Digital Media, but being an engineer is central to her identity.
Edmonds spoke to University of Cincinnati students last semester about her journey from engineering to higher education administration as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series co-hosted by the College of Engineering and Applied Science Office of Inclusive Excellence and Community Engagement and the Association for Women of Color in Engineering student organization.
Edmonds, who holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan, worked as a process engineer in silicone manufacturing for several years before transitioning to academia. After earning a PhD in management science and an MBA at Rutgers University, Edmonds worked as a faculty member at Wilkes University for 15 years, most recently serving as associate dean of the Sidhu School of Business & Leadership there, before taking her current position in 2019.
What would you tell someone who is considering a change in career path?
It is never too late to reinvent yourself. Transitioning away from your undergraduate area of study is not unusual. Selecting the “right major” does not make the rest of this journey easier. Whatever your route may be, there’s nothing wrong with recognizing you need a shift.
Look within yourself and reflect on what you think is missing, what you’re really trying to get out of your career, and what you can do to access those things you think you’re looking for.
Allow yourself to learn about yourself now, so you can nurture your future greatness.
It’s crucial to understand who you are, what drives you and what you truly want to commit yourself to. Those things will dictate whether you need a shift in your life and how to make one when you do.
When did you know that you wanted a career change from being a professional engineer?
Growing up, in our home, you could only commit to things that add value.
My father was very well-respected orthopedic surgeon in downtown Detroit. It was a wonderful community filled with proud Black professionals. He served lots of people of color. Many of his colleagues were physicians of color. He knew the value he added to his community and to his patients, with every office visit, surgery, every middle-of-the-night phone call.
In 1999, working as an engineer for Dow Corning Corporation, I realized that I was not really sure the value I was adding. I was doing the things that I learned to do and was good at it. It was intellectually stimulating.
But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to add value to the community of silicone manufacturers. That was the moment I knew my engineering career was over.
What led you to higher education and how did engineering factor in?
I’d decided that I wanted to teach but didn’t know how to make that leap. I had been thinking high school, but then I learned about the PhD Project, whose purpose is increasing the diversity of business school faculty.
While exploring PhD programs, fate connected me to management science, the most delightfully quantitative area in the business school. Collecting data, process, documentation, and all those things make sense to me. I knew that was where my gifts and strengths were.
I taught statistics and operations management for 15 years. But I was an engineer. So underneath it all, I was committed to processes and data collection. That was who I was, how I taught and what I taught.
How has your career transition shaped your views on authenticity?
Real leadership is based on developing honest relationships. To do that, it’s critical that you remain authentic in who you are.
My current job is to champion, motivate, and challenge other people. But to have the energy to do that every day, you don’t have time to not be you.
I try to make sure I act, work, and commit with integrity. That includes being honest, with myself and others, about what drives and defines me, how I work and how I lead.
What does “adding value” mean for you now?
Bringing my people together drives me. I am committed to ensuring that my people have a voice. That means I need to create spaces for listening, and spaces to be listened to.
What kind of support is essential for leaders and mentors to offer, and how does your engineering background help you in doing that?
Listen. As an engineer, I am a question-asker, a data-gatherer, a problem-solver—that's who we are.
The puzzle solver in me wants to collect all the data and figure out what my people are telling me they need. Let me listen to you and see if I can help you get to where you want to go. You can trust me to empower you with the tools you need to accomplish what you want.
Why is community vital to success?
A good community, one that appreciates your strengths and who you are and lets you be you, can help you manage life’s ups and downs and stay true to yourself as you explore what path is right for you.
When I was an undergraduate student, it took me two and a half years to find a community that fit. But when I did find it, in the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), it connected me to people that made me realize, “Oh, I can be this person! I can be this person out loud, and it’s ok!”
If I hadn’t connected to NSBE and didn’t try to maintain connections, I would not be where I am today. What I love about this community now, 25 years later, is that I look to them for encouragement, and to be inspired.
Featured image at top: "Passion led us here" sidewalk art. Photo/Ian Schneider/Unsplash.
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