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MU Engineering alumna kicks off diversity speaker series

Alexa Mitchell speaks to a group of MU SHPE students.

MU alumna Alexa Mitchell, a CADD services engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) shared her personal and professional experiences with engineering students on February 25. Mitchell graduated in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Photo by Shelby Kardell.

MU alumna Alexa Mitchell, a CADD services engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), shared her personal and professional experiences with engineering students on Feb. 25. She also gave students tips for increasing their professional value while still at MU.

“It’s good for our students to hear the message of resilience and leadership,” said Miguel Ayllon, MU College of Engineering’s international outreach coordinator MU College of Engineering’s international outreach coordinator and staff advisor for the Mizzou chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).

Her talk was the first event of the Distinguished Diversity in Engineering Speaker Series, which is a result of a collaboration of SHPE, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and the Women in Engineering Center.

“We are working in partnership to bring back successful engineers so they can share their wisdom with our students,” said Ayllon. “We want to collaborate because together we can accomplish more.”

Anthony Cano, the current president of SHPE, highlighted the value of the College of Engineering’s diversity programs.

“Growing up, no one ever told me I could be an engineer. Being Hispanic, almost everyone I knew worked in a factory,” said Cano. “So surrounding myself with people like me who are in this profession is so important.”

Many SHPE members were in attendance to hear Mitchell — a former SHPE member herself — speak. She began by telling her life’s journey, starting with her family’s immigration to Missouri from Nicaragua when Mitchell was 16.

“I always knew I wanted to be an engineer because, being a girl, people would always tell me ‘girls aren’t good at math,’ or ‘why don’t you become a teacher so you can teach math instead?’” said Mitchell. “Being the rebel I am, I said, ‘no, I’m gonna be an engineer.’”

After graduating from high school in Jefferson City, Mitchell went to college at Lincoln University but dropped out after two years.

“It was just one year off, working jobs such as a grocery cashier and in child care, but I did just enough where I knew I didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life,” she said.

After that year, Mitchell went back to college at the University of Missouri. During her time there, she became the second student president of the newly-formed SHPE program and spent much of her extracurricular time gaining practical experience and developing her leadership skills. Mitchell graduated in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in the honors program.

Seven years passed from the time she graduated high school to the time she graduated college, and she had to find a balance between work, school and family. There was a point, she said, when she was ready to quit, but thanks in part to an adviser who knew her potential and wouldn’t let her give up, she was able to persevere.

After graduating, Mitchell got a job with MoDOT as an entry-level highway designer, and worked her way up. She learned about the importance of navigating diversity with her first management job for MoDOT; she was a Hispanic woman supervising a team of all men, many of whom were older than her.

Being able to manage a diverse group, whether in regard to gender, age, ethnicity or field of work, said Mitchell, is just one reason ‘soft skills’ are so important for engineers.

“You have to get all of these people to work together, and if you haven’t invested in soft skills it’s very obvious,” said Mitchell. “When we’re hiring people, we assume that if you graduated from engineering school that you have excellent technical ability, so what will really make you stand out is those soft skills.”

Leadership and communication skills require cultivation, which she said can be acquired through various means, such as tutoring children or leading focus groups in class.

Mitchell also stressed how important it was for students to take every opportunity to gain extracurricular practical experience. “It’s what you do on your own time. It means more than if somebody handed you something to do,” she said.

She emphasized that internships provide a tremendous advantage.

When hiring employees, Mitchell said that if she had to choose between an applicant with a 4.0 grade-point average and little experience and an applicant with a 3.0 GPA and a lot of experience, she “would choose the applicant with the 3.0 GPA every time.”

Throughout the lecture, Mitchell fostered an open dialog with the audience, fielding questions from students throughout. After the talk, many students stuck around to enjoy free sandwiches and talk one-on-one with Mitchell.

“I just want to give back to a place that got me where I am today,” said Mitchell of her motivation to accept the invitation to speak. “And to reinforce that what you’re doing is worthwhile — planting that seed that investing in yourself is important.”