Alumna Amy Doroff Gives Back to Illinois' Women in Engineering

September 4, 2018

ISE alumna Amy Doroff.

Being a freshman woman in engineering at the University of Illinois is not an easy task. Not only are the classes challenging, but their populations tend to have more males than females, which can be quite intimidating for freshman girls. This is exactly why Illinois alumna Amy Doroff, currently an engineer at Whirlpool, decided to return to the university as a keynote speaker at the Women in Engineering (WIE) freshman orientation this fall. Doroff’s college experience certainly wasn’t easy, but she received support from various people to help her push through it. Now, it’s her turn to be the one giving support to students. “I'm three years out of college now, and I want to remind people that I made it to this point, but also that it wasn't because there weren't any challenges. And I want to be part of their story now.”

Amy Doroff when she was a student at <em> Illinois</em>. (Photo courtesy of <em> Illinois</em> College of Engineering)
Amy Doroff when she was a student at Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Illinois College of Engineering)

Doroff majored in Systems Engineering and Design (General Engineering when she was in school), and she claims that the most challenging subject for her in that discipline was definitely physics. She had a very limited background in the subject and found it incredibly difficult. Six weeks into the semester, Doroff was ready to quit. She marched into the undergraduate advising office and told them, “I can’t do physics. I can’t be an engineer.” However, her advisors would not let her quit. They told her that if she really wanted to be an engineer, they could provide her with the support and guidance to get her there. Initially, Doroff was upset because she had already made up in her mind that engineering wasn’t for her. In hindsight, though, Doroff is very thankful for her advisors, because she wouldn’t be where she is today—a systems engineer at Whirlpool supervising a team of engineers who are cranking out thousands of washing machines per month—without them.

Doroff was heavily involved in WIE during her time at Illinois, which she cites as one of the biggest sources of support for her. Former director Susan Larson and current director Angie Wolters were her two major support systems. “There were times I didn’t feel like I was capable of getting an engineering degree, but their words and their help kept me in the program,” she says. Other resources that Doroff accessed were CARE tutoring, the deans in 206 Engineering Hall, and the advising in the Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering Department, especially chief academic advisor Heidi Craddock.

Amy Doroff, in front of the Quintessential Engineer statue.
Amy Doroff in front of the Quintessential Engineer statue.

“It's one of those things where they always say that it takes a village to raise a child,” says Doroff. “Well, in Urbana and Champaign, it takes two. It takes both of those places to get someone like me through engineering!”

Another major reason why Doroff is so passionate about providing support to women in engineering is because they can offer a wide array of perspectives and ideas to the male-dominated field. Many women and other diverse individuals don’t get the support they need, and when people don’t feel like they have support in a field they have recently entered, they often don’t stick around for very long. Regarding the need to increase retention in the field, she states, “I just have this fear if we don’t bring everybody to the table, that we’re going to lose out on these incredible ideas. Because we have gotten so far in technology in the 150 years that the University of Illinois has been around, but we only brought some of the necessary innovators to the table to do it. Think about all the ideas we could have had if we’d have had support for women and other people in engineering.” Often times when people are scared and want to quit something, people let them quit. However, Doroff wants to be one of those people telling students “No, you can’t quit!” in order to have more diverse innovators in engineering.

Amy Doroff (right) with the with previous Dean of the College of Engineering, now Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost, Andreas Cangellaris. (Photo courtesy of William Gillespie)
Amy Doroff (right) with the previous Dean of the College of Engineering, now Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost, Andreas Cangellaris, during her time as an engineering student at Illinois. (Photo courtesy of William Gillespie)

Doroff also had some things to say about students who may have never faced academic challenges in the past. When these students encounter challenges at Illinois, they're not used to it, get afraid, and some even leave the program.

“Try hard to get through that knee jerk reaction of not being confident when things get difficult, because things will get difficult, but you can also get through them.”

Amy Doroff encourages freshmen to redefine what success means to them during her keynote speech at WIE Orientation.

Doroff also believes that sometimes this requires students to redefine what success means to them. “Maybe in high school it was that you got straight A's and never had to study, but maybe success in college means that you learn the material as best as you can and pass the class. It's a different definition of success and you have to stop that knee jerk reaction of trying to leave in order to get to that definition [of success].” During her keynote speech, Doroff mentioned that if students are ever lacking confidence and starting to feel overwhelmed while in class, they should stay in class and count to ten, even if they have to do so multiple times just to get through the period.

Amy Doroff sitting in front of the Quintessential Engineer statue.
Amy Doroff sitting in front of the Quintessential Engineer statue.

Another piece of advice Doroff gave during her keynote speech had nothing to do with academics, but instead involved embracing new cultures and experiences. She stated that despite the high level of diversity at Illinois, many people (including herself!) choose to surround themselves with people who are similar to themselves because that’s what feels comfortable. However, once she realized what she was doing, she broke out of her comfort zone and put herself in scary situations of trying new thing. She encourages others do the same because “You gain so much from actually trying to be a part of someone else’s interests and customs. Tolerance isn’t enough.”

Doroff pushes women in engineering to not just focus on studying and getting good grades during their time at Illinois, but to also work on improving themselves as a whole person. She loves that there are more women in engineering at Illinois than ever before, but they will not be able to formulate and share their ideas properly if they aren't the best all-around person they can be. “I can’t wait to see a time in our history where we have everyone at the table and we’re truly bringing out everyone’s ideas,” Doroff proclaims.

Amy Doroff speaking at the WIE Orientation.
Amy Doroff speaking at WIE Orientation.

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

More: Engineering, WIE, Women in STEM, 2018

For additional I-STEM articles about Women in STEM, see:

Amy Doroff (right) when she was a student at <em> Illinois</em>. (Photo courtesy of <em> Illinois</em> College of Engineering)
Amy Doroff (right) when she was a student at Illinois. (Photo courtesy of Illinois College of Engineering)