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How 2020 Outstanding Engineering Peer Educator Lily Vu supported students during an unprecedented year

By Andy Freeberg
January 12, 2021

ME junior Lily Vu received the 2020 Outstanding Engineering Peer Educator Award from the UW College of Engineering.

No one knows the challenges and mix of emotions that come with being an incoming engineering student at the UW better than the students who have recently been there themselves. Starting with the introduction of Direct to College admissions in 2018, most first-year applicants enter the College of Engineering as “Engineering Undeclared,” a status that gives them a chance to spend their first year considering the various engineering major options. To help advise and guide them during this time, students are required to enroll in two classes: “Engineering Exploration” (ENGR 101) is a series of lectures and presentations designed to introduce them to various important topics in engineering, and “The University Community” (GEN ST 199) is a small group class of 15 to 25 students facilitated by Engineering Peer Educators (EPEs) – current engineering students tasked with helping more closely instruct, guide and transition the new students into the college.

This year’s incoming class faced a very different situation than years past. Most students ended their senior year of high school remotely and began their college experience the same way. Lily Vu, an ME junior who was awarded the 2020 Outstanding EPE Award, spoke with ME’s Andy Freeberg about what it means to be a peer educator and what it was like trying to welcome and support this year’s incoming engineers remotely.

Originally from Issaquah, Washington, Vu is an undergraduate researcher in the Laboratory for Nanomachanics of Complex Material Systems. In addition to being an EPE, she participates in Engineers Without Borders and works part-time at ACI Mechanical & HVAC Sales. A dance minor, Vu is also active in the Dance Student Association of UW and a dance company called Aura.

What do students get out of the GEN ST 199 classes?

Students take the ENGR 101 class every week to get exposure to the different engineering majors and their areas of impact. Then students attend GEN ST 199, a weekly discussion session to reflect on the lectures and interact with their peers. We introduce first-year students to the resources the college offers, such as the engineering clubs and groups, the libraries and places to study, and how to access different support services. We also serve as mentors and try to help them feel less isolated and overwhelmed as they begin their engineering experience.

This year was unique because the incoming students didn’t get the college experience they expected, so community building was a huge priority. In typical large introductory classes it’s hard to get to know people, so that was something I tried to focus on. I made sure to include community-building activities in each class and embed ways to put the students in breakout rooms frequently. This helped everyone get to know each other better so they could feel comfortable asking questions and building relationships.

Why did you become an EPE?

I always enjoyed teaching and mentorship and have benefitted from my own mentors, including my EPEs, so I wanted to be there for my students in the same way. I wanted to help ease their transition to UW and introduce them to the various resources and opportunities UW offers, so they have the tools for success. It was important to me that my students would be able to come to me with any question big or small.

Plus, it’s a really fun, rewarding and memorable experience where you get to develop a lot of skills in organization and leadership and hopefully make an impact on your students. People might think you need to be extroverted to be an EPE, but that’s not true. The EPE program does an excellent job preparing EPEs to navigate teaching a class. I personally have gained a lot of confidence in myself through this role.

Why do you think you were selected for the award?

I was lucky and had an amazing group of students, and I think their positive feedback is a big reason why I was selected. At the end of the quarter, I received kind messages from my students that they enjoyed and appreciated me and my class. It meant a lot to hear from them that I was helpful.

Having been in the GEN ST 199 class myself during my freshman year, I put myself in my students’ shoes when creating my lesson plans. Since it can be intimidating as a first-year student to talk to more experienced students, I held one-on-ones with each person in my class at the beginning to get to know them. My students shared what they believed worked well or didn’t in their remote classes in high school, and I took their feedback into consideration when facilitating my class. Since all the classes were held remotely, I encouraged everyone to have their cameras on during our discussions, which helped create a closer classroom environment. I reassured them multiple times that I was here for them and, as a result, many students reached out to me when they had questions about registration, resume building and extracurricular involvement.

The pandemic has been really difficult, but my students were so resilient.  It means a lot to me to get selected for this award, and I am grateful for my students, the EPE team and my family and friends.

What’s your biggest piece of advice to new engineering students?

Many of my students were worried that they didn’t have a top choice major to request placement for right away. They felt like a lot of other students were already decided on what majors to pursue and some of them were just open to engineering generally and not ready to rank the specific majors.

For any new students that come in feeling this way, I think it’s important that they know they’re not alone and they don’t need to feel overly stressed about it. There are so many different opportunities and resources available to explore all the engineering majors, such as attending seminars and events or connecting with engineering professors and alumni.

My own EPEs pushed me to participate in some of these opportunities and, as a result, I met ME Professor Junlan Wang my first year at a WiSE DTC Celebration of Women event. Since then, she‘s been supportive throughout my college experience, including giving me opportunities to do research in her lab and explore deeper into nanoscale engineering applications.

So even though putting yourself out there can be scary, it’s an important part of finding your path and I’d encourage all the incoming students to do it. You never know what doors may open.

Find out more

Consider being an Engineering Peer Educator! Applications for 2021 are due Jan. 19.