Four years ago, as a Freshman, I wrote one of the first blogs for the ECE department. The topic was about why I chose USC and Electrical Engineering. I mentioned the interesting classes, the clubs, and the relationship USC Viterbi has with so many industry leaders. But in reality, I had no way of knowing the trajectory my college career would take. Like many other freshmen, my world was shaped so much by my parents.
And that entire world changed a month into my sophomore year at USC when my dad suddenly died. I was 19 years old and I was alone, grieving, and facing a mountain of responsibility. I couldn’t afford to take a break or take time to focus on my grief. I took charge in helping my mom manage our household and just a few weeks later returned to school, a place where everything around me was the same but I was totally different.
My dad was my best friend, my greatest inspiration, and the reason I wanted to study electrical engineering in the first place. My dad was not an engineer by training, but he was an avid electronic hobbyist his whole life. He would always tell me that as a kid growing up in Iran his favorite toys were the new electronic kits he would get to build things like radios. This love continued into his adult years, and much of my childhood was spent watching him take apart and build computers to the exact specifications he wanted. His toolkit and soldering iron were common sights in my household.
“I would tell him about what I was learning in my classes, and he would learn alongside me watching Youtube videos on EE basics and purchasing components to build his own circuits.”
Growing up, my dad always let me pursue my constantly changing interests – everything from English to history, to art and politics. I wanted to go into law or become a psychiatrist like my dad – fields where I could see a direct human impact. But he always told me that studying engineering would give me a good basis to do whatever it was I desired in the future. He would tell me of doctors and lawyers he knew who had started off as electrical engineers, and how engineering will teach me invaluable problem-solving skills that I won’t acquire anywhere else. He joyfully instilled in me the importance of engineering as a tool to take on the world’s problems and explore the world’s wonders.
When I started in electrical engineering at USC, he was ecstatic. I would tell him about what I was learning in my classes, and he would learn alongside me watching Youtube videos on EE basics and even purchasing components to build his own circuits. I recently used some of the passive components he had purchased and his old multimeter to complete my EE 447 capstone project. Even when I was struggling in some of my early coursework and didn’t get the grades I wanted, he would tell me that he was so proud of me for getting through a class in one of the hardest subjects at an amazing university like USC.
It’s been almost three years since my dad died and during that time I’ve worked every day in the Interaction Lab, published conference and journal papers, traveled the world to present my research, successfully led a team through business pitch competitions, interned at Microsoft and NASA JPL, mentored students in the South LA community as a Troy Camp counselor, helped my mom stay afloat, and still attended class.
I’ve worked so hard to accomplish all of this to honor the memory of my dad. It has been really difficult, there have been many seemingly hopeless moments where I wanted to give up. I have struggled with many questions over how I am going to support my family and get through school. As a result of the current global crisis, so much of the world is now also in a place of uncertainty. Many of my peers have had their lives irrevocably changed much like I did in the fall of 2017 when my dad passed. Yes, the situation sucks, but in these past few years, I have learned that the people around us is what really fulfills us. I saw my community come together to help me when I really needed it. Even though our USC graduation is virtual this year, I am still looking forward to crossing this finish line, knowing that I have made it through what has been the most challenging time of my life.
I’m incredibly grateful for all the ways my department and USC have supported me. In these past few years, I’ve come to learn the importance of mentorship from the people who have helped guide me.
These include Professor Maja Mataric who welcomed me into her lab freshman year, empowered me as a researcher, and showed me how engineering can be used to better the lives of people. Linda Chilton, the manager of USC Sea Grant Education Programs who hired me to help her lead groups of middle and high school students in learning about marine science and engineering on the USC Wrigley campus on Catalina Island. Her dedication to helping younger students, particularly those from backgrounds historically underrepresented in STEM, discover the wonders of our natural world through science and engineering has inspired me to do the same.
I have also learned a great deal about mentorship from Professor Krishna Nayak when I had the privilege of being the TA for his Engineering Freshman Academy Class the fall of my Junior year. This is a course that all first-semester engineering students take where they participate in team-building exercises to learn about the importance of engineering and its impact on society. As an upperclassmen coach, I organized activities for my students to teach them about the many resources USC Viterbi has to offer them and to answer any questions they had. I was inspired by Professor Nayak’s effort and compassion towards these new students and I learned a lot from his workshop on implicit bias.
“I hope that I, like my own mentors, too can help students see the true power of engineering in advancing humanity. I hope by helping to make engineering a friendlier and more welcoming environment to students from diverse backgrounds, I too can help others find this joy. Just like my dad helped me find that joy.”
So today, looking back on that first blog I wrote as a freshman, why am I happy that I chose USC Viterbi? Yes, the classes have been great, my peers have been amazing, and the industry contacts are second to none. But my mentors here have instilled something much more valuable in me: the human factor in engineering.
When I was a younger student in math classes, I never really understood the human connection of subjects like calculus. Through my four years of engineering curriculum and research at USC I have been trained to see the higher-level applications of engineering to the real world: human society and our natural environment. Applications that I have worked on, such as robotics to help children develop social and cognitive skills, or communication platforms to assist in exploring our oceans, are the reasons why I love engineering. Now that I am graduating, I hope that, like my own mentors, I too can help students see the true power of engineering in advancing humanity. I hope by helping to make engineering a friendlier and more welcoming environment to students from diverse backgrounds, I too can help others find this joy. Just like my dad helped me find that joy.
By Roxanna Pakkar