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Passion never rests: Fethya Ibrahim’s journey through mechanical engineering

By Chelsea Yates
January 10, 2017

First in her family to attend college, senior Fethya Ibrahim is making the most of her time at the UW.

ME student Fethya Ibrahim
ME senior Fethya Ibrahim in the Machine Shop. Photo credit: Mark Stone / University of Washington.

Fethya has been a research assistant in ME’s Cell Biomechanics lab, a 2015-16 McNair Scholar, and she has held multiple mechanical engineering internships at Physio-Control, Inc. Since 2013, she has worked as a tutor in the Engineering Academic Center, and this year she is serving as President of the UW Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

We recently sat down with Fethya to talk about her involvement and volunteerism on and off campus and why — thanks in part to her experiences in ME’s Machine Shop — she decided to pursue a degree in ME.

ME: Why did you decide to attend UW and study ME?
FI: The “Why UW?” part is easy! In the sixth grade, my teacher arranged a class field trip to the UW. As soon as I stepped on campus, I knew I wanted to come to school here. Being at the UW has been a pretty big deal for me; I’m the first in my family to attend college, and I feel very lucky to have the opportunity to do so.

But the “Why study ME?” part is a little more complicated. I loved math and science, so engineering made perfect sense. I explored a few programs before settling into mechanical engineering. The turning point happened the summer I worked in Nathan Sniadecki's Cell Biomechanics lab. The design and prototyping work I did there — along with the encouragement I received from Professor Sniadecki — is what helped me decide that ME was what I wanted to do. But I wasn’t sure that I’d succeed in the department. One class in particular that I was extremely hesitant about was ME 355, “Introduction to Manufacturing Processes.” It’s a very “hands on” class that involves learning how to use all of the major machines in the Machine Shop, and every ME student has to take it to graduate.

Fethya Ibrahim operating a machine Photo credit: Mark Stone / University of Washington.

ME: Tell us more about your experience in the Machine Shop.
FI: I was incredibly nervous — I found the Shop to be an intimidating space. I had no prior experience with hand tools, let alone machinery. And all of the equipment seemed to be designed and built for users who were taller than me, with bigger hands than mine, and certainly more upper body strength. I wanted to do well in the Shop but feared it just wasn’t for me. I was also worried that my attire would present a safety concern and that I wouldn’t be able to use the machinery and would fail the class.

ME: So what happened?
FI: I met Eamon and Reggie, the Shop instructors. And suddenly the Shop became a very different space — full of possibility, and fun! The instructors made sure everyone in class knew how to safely use the equipment. They worked with me to ensure that my clothing would not present a safety issue (I wear a jacket or my favorite UW sweatshirt over my dress to keep my scarf, sleeves and fabric draping tucked in and tight). And then they encouraged me to, well, just start machining.

Over time, I became more comfortable with tooling and machining. I discovered that I really liked to operate the lathe. The amount of work it can do is incredible — shaping, cutting, polishing, finishing. Once I found my rhythm for running it, the lathe began to feel quite intuitive.

ME: What other skills did you develop while working in the Machine Shop?
FI: I had to learn how to be patient with the machines, and with myself. I’m the type of person who likes to “get” things immediately — and do them well — and with the equipment in the Machine Shop, that just wasn’t going to happen right away. I often had to ask for help reaching things, lifting things, and getting the machines to work. But there’s a lot of help around if you just ask. And people really like to help! It’s funny that this idea was so novel to me as helping others means a lot to me personally. So, it was good for me to learn how to ask.

I also started watching the instructors’ hands during demos. They were always so still, so quiet. For them it was all about sensing the flow of the machine, and once I relaxed into this idea, things started to come a little more easily. By the end of the quarter, I was surprised by how much I could do, how quickly I could work the machines, and how much self-confidence I’d developed.

ME: Tell us about your experiences tutoring in the Engineering Academic Center (EAC).
FI: I started tutoring at the EAC through the Minority Scholars Engineering Program when I was a sophomore. I just love it! I help students with calculus-based physics and math courses in one-on-one sessions and workshops. Tutoring has been a wonderful way for me to contribute to the UW community and also to sharpen my skills! I’m constantly practicing my math, science and communications skills.

Fethya Ibrahim operating a machine Photo credit: Mark Stone / University of Washington.

ME: In addition to tutoring students on campus, you also go home on weekends to mentor students at your community center. Why?
FI: I’m thankful that my community has been supportive of my educational pursuits and for the opportunities I’ve had at the UW, and it’s important to me to give back. I come from an immigrant community here in Seattle; our older generations didn't have the resources to pursue education due to war and conflict in their home countries. As a result, most older men and women in our community are not college-educated, and very few have a high school education.

On the weekends, I’m a youth mentor and teach Arabic at our community center, where we host a range of college readiness workshops. I also facilitate discussions about current events, social issues and try to help the younger generations understand why they should be proud of who they are. If I can be a mentor for young women in particular — to show them that it’s possible for women to earn engineering degrees and have professional careers — then that’s just as important to me as earning the degree itself.

ME: This year you’re also serving as President of the UW chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), correct?
FI: Yes! NSBE is a student-led organization that’s fun, supportive and inspiring. It provides professional development and networking opportunities on campus and outreach to high school students, which I find very meaningful. I’m eager to take NSBE to the next level. As President, I’m focusing on the organization’s growth. I want to establish a sustainable administrative structure that future leaders can build from.

ME: You’ll be graduating this spring. What’s next?
FI: I hope to get a job doing design work at Boeing. That would be ideal. I’ll also continue advocating for and mentoring the girls in my community. I want to help them break the glass ceiling and know that they have a place in STEM fields and professions.