Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.
Jessica Columbus realized her interest in engineering at a young age but put her degree on hold to pursue another passion — ballet.
Growing up in Kentucky, Columbus spent her free time with her dad, who was an industrial engineer, putting together model cars, planes and computers, which fueled her passion for the engineering industry.
Always planning to follow in her dad’s footsteps, when it was time to go to college, Columbus studied mechanical engineering. However, her goal of being an engineer took a backseat when she was offered an opportunity to dance professionally as part of the Louisville Ballet.
Years later, Columbus discovered Arizona State University and decided it was time to complete her degree in engineering — but this time as an online student. ASU was the clear choice for Columbus because it included ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology) accreditation and a good reputation, two things Columbus noted were crucial for landing a job. One surprise Columbus found during her experience at ASU was a supportive network and her ability to develop real connections with fellow students.
“There are so many learning moments being online — I learned that I liked working in groups better online than I did on campus,” said Columbus. “The other students also have lives, jobs and kids, so when you get into a group everyone really wants to be there, learn and do well. They’re all working toward the goal of changing their career.”
Columbus encourages those completing degrees online to connect with classmates sooner rather than later for support in classes.
“Reach out to peers and form connections. Talk to your professors, TAs and success coach. Ask for help when you need it and ask questions. It is easy to feel lonely doing an online program so form those connections,” says Columbus.
The long hours of studying have paid off as Columbus starts her career as an electrical engineer in the tanker division at Boeing just one week after graduation.
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
Answer: My “aha” moment was a combination of the little moments I had working on projects with my dad. Even as a kid I had always loved problem solving, especially when it had practical applications.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: I found there were classes that I liked a lot more than I thought I would — solid state design, for example. After taking the first course, I took as many as I could. In general, I enjoyed studying and learning much more this second time around.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: The ABET accreditation and reputation. That was important to me when looking at online programs — getting a degree that will get you a job.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: Dr. Linda Chattin in the industrial department. She taught statistics in a fun and engaging way, and I have used it in every semester since including for my senior design project. For the project I took on the data analyst role and felt really comfortable taking more than 20,000 data points and running hypothesis tests.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Reach out to your peers and form connections. Talk to your professors, the TAs and the success coaches. Ask for help when you need it and ask questions. It is easy to feel lonely doing an online program so form those connections.
Getting involved in your field within your community can help you make connections, too. I am personally involved with the Society of Women Engineers and attended the national conference where I was able to meet important people in the industry and interview for jobs. A lot of resources were available to me as a student and I used them all. From medical emergencies to natural disasters, I have had to use all those resources along the way.
Q: As an online student, what was your favorite spot to study or just think about life?
A: My favorite spot to study is in a quiet place at home, but I studied everywhere I could. I studied backstage before and after my ballet productions and in hallways and coffee shops between jobs. My favorite spot to simply think is when I’m hiking.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: I would fund topsoil erosion research because in about 60 years, our topsoil will be gone and we won’t be able to grow anymore crops so it’s a very important cause that we don’t hear much about.
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