The Small School Stigma

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. College has happened upon me again in the most peculiar way and I find myself juggling grad school applications, senior projects, and sucking the marrow from my last year at Northwest Nazarene University.

As I apply for grad school, I find myself haunted by this shadow: the small school stigma. This plague follows the trend of the image header: I go to a small school with a small program, but because few people know about NNU, it is hard to get hired. Aaaand as the saying goes, I can’t get experience without getting hired and therefore I can’t get experience and so forth. The topic of the following blog post is one of my grad school letters referencing this stigma. I really like it, so I decided to push it here. Maybe it will inspire people to rise above their small school problems…I dunno. I just really like things I write late at night, especially when my entire future seemingly hangs on it…

The engineering program that I was apart could best be described as a fledgling organization. While physics and physics with a hint of engineering had been taught for decades, there was no raw engineering program until the year prior to my arrival. Much like an adolescent teen, Northwest Nazarene University’s engineering program implemented several plans to prove their worth and to grow their program into the valuable asset that it is today. Faculty doubled in numbers, grants for equipment skyrocketed, and new lab spaces were growing; all eager for students to utilize the resources. While NNU delivered quality faculty and facilities, the program required a catalyst from the other end: student willing to accept the risk.

When I arrived at NNU, I had grandiose dreams of engineering internships and fostering my future career. However, attending a small, young engineering program, I was met with a lot of skepticism from potential employers, saying that my program was not up to the standards that they expected in the past. I made it to the final round of an internship application, only to be disqualified strictly because of the brevity of my school’s engineering tradition. Even as I tackled as many school-based research projects, the small school stigma followed. Several of my professors expressed concerns for one of our NASA research projects, stating that since our program was so new, funding agencies were unlikely to sponsor our research.

When funding was made available, we delivered high-quality results of great scientific benefit. We demonstrated that flexible electronics retain their flexibility and conductivity in the cryogenic ultra-high vacuum of space. I was privileged to be the mechanical lead for this project, tasked with designed a mechanical system to exercise these flexible electronics inside several tight space requirements of our payload canister. The method that my team and I devised has since been implemented as the primary method of testing and demonstration for cutting edge flexible electronics by our sponsoring company. More importantly our results allowed the company to invest more efforts into their flexible electronics research, which kicked back to support second and third year support for follow-up student research.

Yes, the small school stigma has followed my research endeavours for the past four years. But all that is to be expected with a new program. The rambunctious drive of my professors, commingled with my own personal desire to absorb experience allowed me to demonstrate that quality students and engineers can arise from small school environments, as we challenged that stigma. The NASA research team I led was our most complicated project ever, with the most engineering design and collaborative teamwork assembled at my school. I had the honor of standing alongside students from larger universities with multimillion dollar facilities and more engineering legacy, representing the small school with the big school aspirations. Much like that adolescent I mentioned earlier, my university and I were able to dream big, put plans of growth and excellence into motion, and stand alongside the big players.

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