Ready. Set. Go! Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World

Engineering seniors Shivani Ganesh, Courtney Leverenz, Eugenia Maldonado, and Berat  Gulecyuz by the Engineering Hall sign.
Engineering seniors Shivani Ganesh, Courtney Leverenz, Eugenia Maldonado, and Berat Gulecyuz by the Engineering Hall sign.

April 22, 2021

Every year, Illinois graduates a crop of female engineers who are skilled, well prepared, knowledgeable about not just their field, but engineering overall, and well equipped to navigate the vagaries of the engineering world. The spring 2021 crop is even more well prepared, having weathered the adversity of completing part of their junior year and all of their senior year under COVID-19 restrictions. Meet Shivani Ganesh, Berat Gulecyuz, Courtney Leverenz, and Eugenia Maldonado—future engineers who are eager to get out there and make a difference—to change the world for the better! Below, the four friends share why they came to Illinois, some of their achievements, challenges they overcame, a key nugget of what they learned at Illinois that they know they’ll be using down the road, their dream job/how they intend to change the world, and advice for incoming engineering freshmen.

Shivani Ganesh

A senior in Aerospace Engineering, Shivani Ganesh calls her next path “a little bit interesting.”  She has two classes to finish before graduating, and is going do some part-time volunteering coordination while she finishes those. Then this summer, she’s going back to Lockheed Martin on the space side to work as a systems engineering intern at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. “So, yeah, I'm so excited!” she exclaims.

Ganesh grew up in East Moline, Illinois. “So, literally it's cornfields—not near Chicago at all—and I love it. I love going back home because it just reminds me that I come from humble roots…So, hopefully, I'll carry that wherever I go.”

 In fact, Ganesh came to Illinois to stay close to home…and fell in love with it. “So, I was a very different person in high school…very shy and reserved. I kept to myself,” she admits. So she had decided that going off to a big college somewhere else would help her get out of her shell. But her parents, worried that she couldn't handle it, encouraged her to go to school nearby, saying, “‘Hey, maybe consider Illinois—staying kind of close to home.’ That ended up being the best deal,’ Ganesh admits. So, she decided to try out Illinois’ space program, to see how it feels, “and then I kinda just fell in love with it,” she confesses.

Shivani Ganesh during the 2019 Illinois Space Day, an event she helped organized as the ISS Outreach Coordinator.
Shivani Ganesh during the 2019 Illinois Space Day, an event she helped organized as the ISS Outreach Coordinator.

In hindsight, Ganesh says it was the best decision, “because being Midwestern was a huge part of my identity. And so coming to a school where those kinds of values are emphasized in every aspect of the culture is very important.”

Because Ganesh is in Aerospace, ISS (Illinois Space Society) has been her main RSO. “Honestly, I'm the type of person that's really dedicated to one thing. And so I think ISS was kind of my thing throughout college.” However, she’s also served as a Grainger Engineering Learning Assistant (ELA), and for the past two years, has been the primary instructor for an Engineering 100 section within Aerospace. Being able to teach in that capacity to incoming freshmen, for whom everything can be so confusing and very intimidating, “was a really great experience,” she admits, “because I feel I struggled most of my freshman year. So, giving back in that way was really awesome.”

One struggle Ganesh went through while at Illinois was dealing with insecurity. She prefaces her explanation by sharing about working at this university, which she calls incredibly research-focused, with lots of cutting-edge work being done there. But Ganesh thinks her mind is a little bit more operations-oriented, “So, working with peers who are so good at design and so good at the research component made me feel really insecure,” she acknowledges.

Shivani Ganesh. (Image courtesy of Shivani Ganesh.)
Shivani Ganesh. (Image courtesy of Shivani Ganesh.)

Another struggle Ganesh went through she calls “learning how not to justify her passions.” She explains. Very passionate about engineering, she's also passionate about outreach. “I really love educational outreach,” she insists. “That's where my biggest passions lie.” However, she’s run into folks who couldn’t understand her love of outreach, that one can do multiple things. So, because she’s done a lot of outreach at Illinois, they didn't take her seriously. They assumed she'd opt for a path other than engineering. So Ganesh spent lots of time and energy justifying that she belonged here too. “Everything I do is still valid,” she explains. “But in reality, you should just follow what you want to do, and don't worry about what other people think.”

One thing Ganesh learned at Illinois that she believes she’ll put to good use down the road is a phrase she learned at her most recent internship: “engineering judgment.” She describes it as “The concept of using your growing experience to become the best at operations you could be. While my classes gave me the technical breadth necessary, translating that to whatever spacecraft and aircraft you're working on day-to-day is the ultimate goal. Furthermore, as I pushed myself more to develop engineering judgement, I found new practical applications I'd love to explore in addition to my job (maybe even getting a pilot's licence or learning navigation, weather forecasting, the like!).”

Aerospace Engineering senior Shivani Ganesh.<
Aerospace Engineering senior Shivani Ganesh.

Ganesh is grateful to Lockheed Martin for helping her “grow as an engineer and explore their business areas; a major shout out to them!” But when she got the offer for NASA this summer, she says, “It was the first day in my life that I could put on my NASA t-shirt and say, ‘Well, I'm going to go work at a NASA facility, especially at Kennedy Space Center,’ which is what started this whole thing. So, it came really full circle.”

Her dream job? Actually, where she’s going next is kind of her dream job, since she’s realized she’s definitely an operations-type of engineer. Her dream is to work on human space flight, she’ll get to work on that in the Orion Program. Her dream, dream job is still being Flight Director at NASA, which “would be pretty much the perfect fit.” She adds that her dream job has kind of grown as far as the umbrella that it could be. So, while being flight director would be the pinnacle, there are lots of jobs she’d be content with.

Ganesh’s advice for incoming freshmen women is: “Take the unconventional path, for sure. I think I took a very, very unconventional path. especially with the activities I got involved in. My internships were very different, but encapsulated different portions of my passion for the aerospace industry.” She literally went from working at Lockheed's planetarium, which is progressive science-based missions, to its defense side, which is all about a military base. “But both of which I love very immensely,” she says. “So, I think that you want to follow your own path. Don't let other people dictate what your experience is going to be.”

Berat Gulecyuz, Illinois' Bioengineering class of '21. (Image courtesy of Berat Gulecyuz.)
Berat Gulecyuz, Illinois' Bioengineering class of '21. (Image courtesy of Berat Gulecyuz.)

Berat Gulecyuz

A senior in Bioengineering, Berat Gulecyuz plans on going to graduate school for a Master's in bioengineering. She came to Illinois “Because out of all the schools that I was accepted to, Illinois was the one that showed the most love and wanted me to come as much as I wanted to attend—so just the community atmosphere. Even before I attended campus, I felt like I was an alumni just from all the promotional materials and from people reaching out.” (Plus, it didn’t hurt that her mother and uncle graduated from the College of Engineering too). “So, I've been aligned since birth, but just being able to feel wanted and loved by the community before even joining was probably the reason why I attended Illinois. And the Bioengineering Department is amazing. They're so supportive, and they love the students as much as the students love them!”

Activities Gulecyuz has been involved with at Illinois have included serving as a Student Alumni Ambassador during Homecoming week this past year, and she was recently honored with the Knight of St. Patrick Award,. She was also on Homecoming Court in Fall 2020. She’s been involved with the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and Women in Engineering (WIE). Also, she has served as a course assistant for TAM 210/211, which she says, “has been amazing over the last two years.”

Berat Gulecyuz at Homecoming 2020. (Image courtesy of Berat Gulecyuz.)
Berat Gulecyuz at Homecoming 2020. (Image courtesy of Berat Gulecyuz.)

Gulecyuz shares one challenge she encountered and overcame, indicating that a lot of engineers, and specifically female engineers, herself included, grapple with Impostor Syndrome. “I think a lot of us deal with this—I deal with this every single day—just thinking that we're not good enough, or we don't have enough knowledge. Even as a senior, I sometimes do feel this way, but I think Illinois really promotes understanding this challenge.” She goes on to cite resources that seek to help students combat this, including the WIE, and SWE—even male professors and male students. “It doesn't matter the gender,” she acknowledges. “We're all just supposed to support each other as humans in the world. So, I think that's been the biggest challenge, just trying to understand where I fit into the engineering world, and then that everything I do is important and valued even in classes and in clubs and everything.”

What’s one thing Gulecyuz has learned or skill she’s gained at Illinois that she’s definitely going to use down the road? Her communication skills.

Berat Gulecyuz on Engineering Quad.
Berat Gulecyuz on Engineering Quad.

“I think just learning how to communicate with different people has been the biggest skill I've learned at Illinois,” she admits. “There's so many diverse students, diverse faculty, professors, staff that have so many different opinions and just different knowledge, viewpoints than mine. So, it's been really great to understand how I'm going to translate what I've learned into the real world and just how to be a good human overall. I've learned so much kindness and just how to be a good impact on the world through people at Illinois. I think that'll help anyone, no matter what job you go into, what type of life you want to live, just how to be a good person.”

Gulecyuz has a couple different dream jobs—mostly having to do with making a difference. “I would love to be a Marine biologist for starters. It doesn't have anything to do with engineering,” she confesses. Another dream job that’s a bit more related to her field: “I think my dream job would probably be in research and development somewhere trying to create a medical product that'll help change even one person's life. Just being able to make a difference in the world through health and technology.”

Does Gulecyuz have some advice for incoming Illinois freshmen? “I'd say, definitely get out of your comfort zone. There's so much that Illinois has to offer. And at first, it's very challenging coming to a new school, but there's so many opportunities. You can definitely pursue your dreams.”

(And Gulecyuz has definitely taken her own advice. For instance, she got her scuba diving license here. “Which I never thought possible,” she admits, “in one of the most landlocked states!”)

The four Engineering seniors,   Courtney Leverenz, Berat Gulecyuz, Eugenia Maldonado, and Shivani Ganesh get a photo op with Engineering's Dean Rashid Bashir (center) on the portico overlooking Engineering Quad.
The four Engineering seniors, Courtney Leverenz, Berat Gulecyuz, Eugenia Maldonado, and Shivani Ganesh get a photo op with Engineering's Dean Rashid Bashir (center) on the portico overlooking Engineering Quad.

“So, you have to definitely put yourself out of your comfort zone,” she continues, “to take initiative, to be able to have the opportunities out there. And don't be afraid to ask for help. There's so many communities that are here to support you and love you for a woman engineer.” She advises students to not only take advantage of programs in their own department, but the College of Engineering as well. “We just talked to the Dean, who was very supportive of us on one of our last few days on campus.”

(Gulecyuz is referring to the fact that, when the four seniors and this reporter were on Engineering Hall’s back portico to get some photos with Engineering Quad in the background, the Dean of the College of Engineering, Rashid Bashir, showed up in his regalia for a different photo session, graciously offering to do an impromptu photo op with the girls.)

“So, everyone here wants you to succeed.,” she concludes. “And I think it's important to realize that as a freshman, that this is a community that will support you throughout your entire life.” In conclusion, she shares a quote that she believes her fellow seniors would agree with: “We're students now, but we're aligned I forever.”

Aerospace Engineering senior Courtney Leverenz on Engineering Quad.
Aerospace Engineering senior Courtney Leverenz on Engineering Quad.

Courtney Leverenz

Courtney Leverenz, a senior in Aerospace Engineering, shares why she came to Illinois: “So I'm from the Chicago suburbs and it just seemed like a great opportunity school to pursue my passion of reaching for the stars.”

A fifth year senior, Leverenz recalls deciding on Illinois. “It was just crazy to think back five years ago, I was deciding between here and a smaller school in Alabama. And I don't regret my decision of coming here. Just all the opportunities I've had through Illinois Space Society and the department internships, co-ops, and part-time jobs. It's been an amazing.”

For Leverenz, the main RSO (Registered Student Organization) in which she’s participated is ISS. “Within that,” she claims, “I've been able to touch a whole bunch of different things. With technical projects, I've been able to go to Johnson Space Center with the Micro-G Tool (which she's holding in the image at the bottom of the article). I've been able to go to cocoa beach, Florida, and do a theoretical mission design, launch high-powered rockets.” On ISS’s educational outreach side, she says, “I've been fortunate enough to lead inspiring the next generation with various educational outreach activities of the moon crater creator, and the orbital simulator, and liquid nitrogen. So, just so many different exhibits to teach kids how vast the space industry is.”

 Courtney Leverenz in her regalia. (Image courtesy of Courtney Leverenz.
Courtney Leverenz in her regalia. (Image courtesy of Courtney Leverenz.)

Like several of her peers, one challenge Leverenz encountered during her time at Illinois was self-doubt. “I would say it was not believing in myself that really hit hard. My junior year, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm very proud of my other friends for all their achievements. We do all the same things together. What am I missing?” Regarding that vague feeling that there was something she was not doing correctly, she recalls:

“It was just a constant battle of Imposter Syndrome. ‘Gosh, I can't get an A on this test. I'm not going to be successful.’ She finally learned to tell herself, “‘Hey, you know what? Don't let ‘No!’ be the final answer. Keep going until you hear the word, ‘Yes!’ You fall 10 times, get up 11, as they say.’”

Leverenz has a great job lined up for after she graduates: She’ll be part of the product assurance team at Virgin Galactic in Mojave, California. The company is involved in space tourism. “So, their thing,” she explains, “their mission is to bring tourists to space.”

(This reporter can’t wait. How delightful to be able to say, “I'm going to Mars next week for a two-week vacation!” And while we’re dreaming, Leverenz’ dream job is that she’d love to be an astronaut on the flight to Mars when I go.)

“Of course astronaut is up there,” Leverenz qualifies, “but also really making an impact whether it's designing the vehicle that'll take them, or designing a habitat, or operating it.” For instance, she’d love to be to project manager, to be the one who is the go command telling a team how they’re going to do the mission.

Courtney Leverenz during her 2019 summer internship at Wallops Flight Facility. (Image courtesy of Courtney Leverenz.)
Courtney Leverenz during her 2019 summer internship at Wallops Flight Facility. (Image courtesy of Courtney Leverenz.)

Leverenz’ advice for incoming freshmen women is “Don't be afraid! Don't be afraid to try new things. It's something I've tried to live by here.” As part of trying new things, she recommends “Doing different internships to figure out what you like. And more importantly, what you don't like!” She also suggests trying out different projects and classes. “I remember taking a museum class,” she recollects. “It wasn't related to engineering at all, but it was just really cool. And it gave a different perspective on different things.”

Leverenz also took a high-speed rail engineering course, where she learned how trains operate. “And it was cool to learn something new,” she recalls.

For her final word of advice to freshmen, she reiterates, “Again, don't let no be the final answer. You know, someone's telling you that you can't do that. I'm sorry. I'd be like, ‘Well, why not? Why can't I do that?’ So, always finding a way to make the answer yes!”

Leverenz also expresses her gratitude: “Oh, I’d just like to thank my family, my friends, Illinois Space Society, and just the Aerospace Department for how many opportunities you provided for me.”

Eugenia Maldonado on Engineering Quad. (Image courtesy of Eugenia Maldonado.)
Eugenia Maldonado on Engineering Quad.

Eugenia Maldonado

Eugenia Maldonado is a senior in systems engineering in Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering (ISE) at Illinois. She chose that discipline because it allowed her to look into different areas she wanted to explore. “I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do at the beginning,” she explains. “And so I was just like, ‘I'm just going to try different things and find my passion and then go into that with a concentration.’ And so that's what systems allowed me to do.” ISE’s secondary field option lets students explore an area more in depth, so she chose data science.

Maldonado shares why she came to Illinois: “I knew that it was such a big university, and I have so many different passions that I wanted to kind of explore. I do music; I play the cello, and I knew the school of music was very good, too. So it kind of gave me that balance.” While she’s not minoring in music, she performs with a musicl group: the Noten Quartet.

 Eugenia Maldonado (third from the left) and her cello, with her group, the Noten quartet. (Image courtesy of Eugenia Maldonado.)
Eugenia Maldonado (third from the left) and her cello, with her group, the Noten quartet. (Image courtesy of Eugenia Maldonado.)

Maldonado was a member/leader in a number of RSOs and service organizations; these included: Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers: Internal Vice President her junior year; Engineering Ambassadors: On-Campus Executive in Spring 2019; CARE Tutor; and a Meditation Teacher with EAT4Health Club at Leal Elementary School.

One of the challenges Maldonado encountered early on after coming to Illinois was over-extending herself. “I was really eager to get involved in the community,” she admits. “And so I took on too many things at once for a while, and because I was passionate about so many things, I think it became really overwhelming at times, and I had to choose.” Although she knew she had the ability to choose what she wanted to do, she acknowledges, “I thought I had to do everything at the same time.” But, at the end of her sophomore year, she said to herself, “I have a whole lifetime to explore that!” telling herself, “I need to simplify my life a little bit!” So, she started focusing more on the things that gave her joy instead of tasks and being involved in so many clubs and so many different things. “So, I think that was the biggest challenge.”

Eugenia Maldonado with Grainger Bob, by the Grainger Engineering Library.

One thing Maldonado has learned at Illinois was actually about herself. “I think I have come to understand that I have many facets to myself instead of just being an engineer.” That epiphany has allowed her to integrate “so many aspects of myself and know that I can be all of them at the same time instead of just being solely focused on one thing. So that was music for me.” She goes on to explain, “I'm very technical on one side, so I love programming; I love logic and all of these things. And then I also love my artistic, creative side.” The life lesson she’s learned and passes on is: “You don't have to choose. You can be all of that at the same time.”

Actually somewhat unrelated to engineering, Maldonado’s dream job is to reframe the education system. “I think we've come to a point where we need to rethink a lot of the things that have been passed down,” she acknowledges. “Because we're this new generation, and we come with new ideas. I think we have that responsibility to speak about what we want to do in the future, and going forward, I want to be part of that change.”

Maldonado will be working for Abbott laboratories in Germany when she graduates. While her first rotation is in Germany, unfortunately, she’s going to be working at least the first half here in Chicago. “Then, hopefully, they'll let me go to Germany and experience that culture.” She’ll be working in the IT professional development program.

Berat Gulecyuz, Eugenia Maldonado, Courtney Leverenz, and Shivani Ganesh by Alma Mater.
Berat Gulecyuz, Eugenia Maldonado, Courtney Leverenz, and Shivani Ganesh by Alma Mater.

Her advice for incoming freshmen to Illinois is to be trail blazers: “There's not one path. You have to create your own path—follow your inner guidance system, and don't try to copy what everyone else has been doing. Don't travel the traveled path. Don't be afraid to go into the unknown and explore, because that's where magic happens—the paths that have not been traveled. So don't be afraid.”

Story by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative. Photos by Elizabeth Innes unless noted otherwise.

For more related stories, see:

More: Student Spotlight, Women in STEM, 2021

Shivani Ganesh, Berat Gulecyuz, Eugenia Maldonado, and Courtney Leverenz
Shivani Ganesh, Berat Gulecyuz, Eugenia Maldonado, and Courtney Leverenz
Shivani Ganesh and Courtney Leverenz in front of Talbott Lab with some things they built as part of ISS.
Shivani Ganesh and Courtney Leverenz in front of Talbott Lab with some things they built as part of ISS.
Courtney Leverenz in charge of the Orbital Simulator exhibit at EOH 2017. (Image courtesy of Courtney Leverenz.
Courtney Leverenz in charge of the Orbital Simulator exhibit at EOH 2017. (Image courtesy of Courtney Leverenz.)

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