Thermodynamics and distillation were foreign to New Brunswick native Jackie Frits, but she didn't let that stop her. Following in her sister's footsteps, she survived the all-nighters and group sessions to finish a chemical engineering degree with a specialization in nuclear energy. It wasn't easy and the work was hard. It has paid off, as the 23-year-old chemical engineer is now proudly working for an engineering design company in Toronto. Campus Starter writer Caitlin Rochon's interview with her reveals how she got through it and how you can too.
WHAT COURSES DID YOU LIKE BEST IN HIGH SCHOOL?
"Mainly math and chemistry. We had a really cool chemistry teacher — very interesting."
DID YOU KNOW IN HIGH SCHOOL THAT YOU WANTED TO BE AN ENGINEER?
"Yes, in Grade 9 I decided on chemical engineering. My sister is a chemical engineer and is five years older than me, so that's how I knew about the program. I would talk to her about what she was doing."
WHAT STUFF DID SHE TELL YOU ABOUT THAT INTERESTED YOU?
"The courses she was taking, and some of the interesting things that she got excited about as she was learning. We'd have discussions about it and I always wanted to learn more, so I started looking at it then."
WHAT SCHOOL DID YOU GO TO, AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE IT?
"I considered going to a university in Ontario, but my Mom wanted me to stay close to home. So I decided to attend the University of New Brunswick (UNB), and I don't regret that."
BEFORE YOU GOT TO UNIVERSITY, DID YOU KNOW WHAT ENGINEERING WAS AND WHAT CHEMICAL ENGINEERING WAS?
"No. Before I started at UNB I didn't realize how much chemical engineers can be involved in. I thought we built electrical power plants and stuff like that. I didn't know about people who work for Procter and Gamble who make Swiffer sweepers and Tide and things like that. There's also a lot of chemical engineers in the cosmetics industry."
WHAT SORTS OF COURSES DID YOU TAKE WHILE IN UNIVERSITY?
"I took quite a bit of math and some basic physical chemistry courses and a lot of physics. Even chemical engineering is more physics than it is chemistry. I learned about thermodynamics, heat transfer, distillation and extraction and statistics."
WAS IT INTIMIDATING OR SCARY TAKING COURSES ABOUT THINGS YOU HADN'T HEAD OF BEFORE?
"It was. In first year you only take one chemical engineering course. You take civil engineering, where you learn about structures. You take mechanical engineering where you learn about 3D drawing. You take physics, math and chemistry. It's kind of like an extension of high school, except for this one chemical engineering course, which is all brand new. That's the first time you get a look at the overall idea of what chemical engineering is about, and at times it was pretty scary. The assignments were longer than I expected, but most of us found we were still interested in it and were willing to do the work."
WHEN YOU APPLY TO STUDY ENGINEERING, DO YOU HAVE TO APPLY TO A SPECIFIC AREA?
"Yes. But a lot of the first year courses are the same for all engineering students; maybe a couple of the courses are different. So if you decide to transfer to a different area, you can without much problem. In your third or fourth year, you get to decide on a more specialized program. Within chemical engineering you could do environmental, nuclear, or pulp and paper processes."
WHAT WOULD YOU TELL SOMEBODY WHO WAS APPLYING AND DIDN'T KNOW WHICH AREA TO APPLY TO? IS THERE ANYWHERE FOR THOSE PEOPLE TO GO FOR ADVICE?
"It's not always clear. If you're interested in a particular school, have a look at its web site. In UNB's case, each different department has a web site with contact numbers. You can also check out the courses you'd be taking, or talk to people in those programs. They're always willing to help or give you some information on it."
WERE THERE EVER TIMES WHEN YOU WEREN'T SURE WHETHER ENGINEERING WAS FOR YOU?
"All the time! When it was really late at night and I still had lots of work to do, or when I sat down to do an assignment that I had no idea how to do. Sometimes I'd ask myself what I was doing in this program. But everybody feels the same way. It was really hard some days when I was tired and had been doing a lot of work, but then I remembered that I liked what I was doing. Every day I was getting a new problem and trying to solve it, really using my brain. There are always times when you'll think that you'll never get through this. If you're unhappy 24 hours a day, then maybe it's not the program for you. But I don't know many people that happened to."
WHAT OTHER KINDS OF PEOPLE WERE IN THE ENGINEERING PROGRAM?
"We had almost even numbers of women and men. We had one lady who had 3 kids, was divorced and had gone back to take chemical engineering. She's 47 and she was the oldest person ever to enroll in the UNB chemical engineering program. A couple of people had done their chemical engineering technology diplomas at trade school or community college and had decided that they wanted to continue their education at university."
DID YOU EVER HAVE SUMMER JOBS THAT WERE RELATED TO ENGINEERING?
"Actually the job I'm in right now. Between my third and fourth year I worked as a summer student where I work now. It was a lot of fun and really good experience. When I went back to school I had an idea of what was out there and what the field was like. There was always a lot of encouragement in our department to go out and get co-op jobs."
A LOT OF PEOPLE THINK THAT ENGINEERS HAVE IT MADE; THAT THERE ARE LOTS OF JOBS AND LOTS OF MONEY. IS THIS TRUE?
"Well ... I wouldn't say there's lots of money. I'm not sure if it's true, but I heard that there's a 3% unemployment rate with engineering. So, compared to the 7% nationwide, that's really good. I think I make a good salary. As an engineer, you usually have to apprentice under another engineer and learn from them for a certain period of time. You have to have a certain amount of work experience and write an exam before you get your professional licence. You can't come right out of school, start your own business and call yourself an engineer. So, lots of money? I don't know about that." (Editor's Note: Starting salaries for engineers usually range from $27,000- $43,000 a year.)
WHAT ARE YOUR WORK HOURS?
"I average nine or nine and a half hours a day versus just 9 to 5. We have a 37.5 hour week, but most people work extra time and that's not unusual in the engineering field."
WHAT DO YOU DO DURING THOSE NINE HOURS ON A REGULAR DAY AT WORK?
"I meet with my boss almost every day and we talk about where our work is headed or any progress that we've made. The company I work for is a design company so I do a lot of design work. I send a lot of e-mail — it's the thing of the day. Teamwork is important as well. When a project is done, it gets sent out — assumptions, calculations and documents — to people who know about it and have more experience than you do. There's a of lot of checking back and forth. Nobody wants to make any mistakes, so I review other people's work and they review mine."
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT YOUR JOB?
"I like that my job is always changing. Each time I come in, I can expect to encounter new challenges and I enjoy that. Very rarely do I have a day where I'm not doing something that I haven't done before — write a new document, do a new calculation, or look into a different area. Because the job is constantly changing, I'm always learning, so I feel like I'm getting further ahead in life each day. It's a good feeling to go home and to know that I've challenged myself, done something different, pushed myself that bit further and that there's a lot more to learn."
WHAT KINDS OF PEOPLE DO YOU WORK WITH? YOUNG, OLD? MALE, FEMALE?
"We're a very large company, around 3,600 in total. There's every range of ages from first year workers to those who are ready to retire. There's also a very good population of women at the company, especially younger women."
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF TEN YEARS FROM NOW?
"I have no idea! Is that fair? I'll be honest — I haven't thought too much about it. Because I'm just out of school, I really wanted to get to work. I didn't have that desire to go back to school right away to get a Master's degree. I wanted to come into the world and see what was out here. I had lots of student loans so I wanted to make some money and pay them off as well. I'm taking some time for me and I've decided not to come up with another goal until I've decided on something that I actively want to do again. So later on down the road I may go to school again, or work really hard and move up in this company."
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WISH YOU'D KNOWN BEFORE UNIVERSITY THAT WOULD HAVE HELPED?
"Good question. I wish I had known that it really gets better. They say the high school years are supposed to be the best of your life, but I really enjoyed university, and I'm really enjoying work now. I was pretty scared to go to university. I really wanted to go, but I was still scared. It's a new beginning, a different atmosphere with different people. I grew up in a small town, so I was frightened to go. Again, when I started to work in the real world I was more nervous than I should have been. In the end it's not a big deal. I spent too much time being nervous, and I needed to be more relaxed. Most of the time I had the skills I needed. University taught me most of the skills I've needed in my work. What it hasn't taught me, my employers are teaching me through mentoring programs, and by having by boss review what I do."
WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE STUDENTS WHO WANT A JOB LIKE YOURS?
"It's really difficult, but don't be afraid. Make two hundred copies of your résumé. Find out which companies you'd really like to work for and call them. Look for job guides in bookstores that can tell you what different companies do. Employers really like to see people with initiative. You can't get a job unless you apply, and the more your potential employer knows you're interested, the better off you are. So if you're really interested then don't be nervous, be enthusiastic. It's easy to say and hard to do, but it makes a difference. It's the same with post-secondary school. If you're in high school and there's a program you really want to be in, be enthusiastic and don't worry so much about your marks. Make the effort to call the department head and tell them you've applied and how interested you are."
Well there you have it, it can be done! Take Frits' advice — don't be nervous or afraid and it always gets better! Have confidence in yourself that you can learn the skills, you can get through the assignments, you get can your resume out and you can be an engineer!