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From WIE Camp to Seniors:
Two Future Engineers Credit
Illinois'
Community of Support

Val Laguna and Ann Zuzuly
MechSE seniors Val Laguna and Ann Zuzuly in fall 2012

September 5, 2012

Ann Zuzuly and Val Laguna were poster children for the Women in Engineering (WIE) Freshman Orientation Camp this fall. Their mothers wrote a letter to parents of incoming freshman women, encouraging them to send their daughters to the camp by describing how their own daughters had benefitted from it. The camp could have received no better recommendation.

Ann and Val were in the same small group at WIE camp the fall of 2009. They didn't become BFFs overnight, but after hanging around each other via a mutual group of friends and serving together in numerous professional organizations, by junior year, they were roommates. Now, as seniors in Mechanical Science and Engineering (MechSE), besides being joint student coordinators of this year's WIE camp, they are best friends, destined to be bridesmaids in each other's weddings. Val calls Ann "My rock; we talk every night about our day." Ann's response? "She's my rock too!"

A Head Start at WIE Camp
"Val and Ann pose near Alma Mater their freshman year.
Val and Ann pose near Alma Mater their freshman year.

Ann reports that attending the WIE camp provided the networking she needed to get a good start at Illinois: "Women in Engineering was fabulous for making connections. Right from the get-go, during WIE camp, it was helping introduce me to my classmates, mentors who were upperclassmen who had already been through everything, giving me the confidence to approach professors. So it was really good for helping me take the initiative and also form the connections that I needed in order to do well here." One salient piece of info the upperclassmen passed on? "You want to try the busses for the first time when you don't really need to be somewhere!"

Ann also reports that the all-important, freshman-year study groups formed at WIE camp. "When we were taking the bus trip to the 4-H Camp at Allerton, we were comparing schedules and figuring out what classes everyone had together. That was kind of pivotal in my success—those study groups from freshman year, for math, for physics. And also, I was able to learn the campus before everyone else was there, so freshman year, all of my friends in the dorm were like, "Oh, I need to be friends with Ann, because she actually knows where she's going and won't get us lost!"

Val and Ann with fellow classmate during the Engineering Open House their freshman year.
Val and Ann with fellow classmate Mark Figge during the Engineering Open House their freshman year.

Ann reminisces about meeting Val at WIE camp their freshman year: "They break you into groups within your major, so we were in the same group and did a lot of the same activities. So we met a lot of the same friends. We didn't become friends right away, but freshman year is a lot about exploring who you are, figuring out who your friends are. So as freshman year progressed, we ended up becoming really, really close friends. Now, we're roommates and best friends. So it's a really fabulous introduction. It's nice to have somewhere from the get-go you can meet best friends."

According to Val, she didn't have many friends in high school. ("I just never fit in.") Born in Venezuela, she grew up in Florida, then spent her junior and senior years in Chicago. She admits to being so terrified about coming to Illinois that she actually cried. However, WIE changed that: "Going to WIE camp and talking to so many people who were so like-minded gave me this confidence that was just priceless. I remember calling my mom that night. I said, "Mom, I'm gonna' be fine. I'm gonna' have such a good time here. And it was day one at WIE camp that did that for me."

Val Laguna
Mechanical Sciences and Engineering senior Val Laguna
A Sense of Community

Part of what began for Ann and Val that first day through WIE and professional societies in which they have participated since was a sense of belonging to a community. Says Val: "I'm really big about feeling comfortable in the community that I'm in, and Illinois engineering has really provided that for me, which is what makes it so great. That's why I get passionate about recruiting. It's because I've had such a good experience; I have felt so comfortable here that I really want to show that to people. I really want them to feel that same thing."

However, Val's career at Illinois hasn't always been bright and sunny. She weathered some storms when, as a sophomore, she failed two classes. When she got those bad grades, she remembers, "I had multiple deans email me and say, 'Hey, what happened? Are you going to be ok?'" When she approached the director of the MechSE undergraduate office in trepidation, expecting the worst, he asked, "'What do you think we can do differently next semester? What resources are you going to need to be successful?' It was all about me and what I needed." Val didn't quit, and when her grades improved the next semester, she even got the "Most Improved Student" award. When students would ask her how she got the award, she would say, "You don't want to know."

How did Val turn it around? First, she lightened her load and learned to balance super technical courses with not-so-demanding courses. And she let go of the idea of graduating in four years. In dread of bearing the stigma of not finishing in four years (an apparent point of pride to underclassmen), she approached older, wiser upperclassman friends who reassured her that it was ok; they themselves were finishing in more than four.

Val and Ann ice skating their sophomore year.
Val and Ann pose by the Zamboni while ice skating at an American Society of Mechanical Engineers event their sophomore year.

Val claims that what helped her during those rough times was "the community of support at Illinois. We have this joke that says, 'When you go to Illinois Engineering, you go to a small private school. And if you want to go to a big public school, cross the street!' And I feel like that's really true. Here in the Engineering Quad, we have our own little world, and I do feel like the amount of resources we have is equivalent to what you hear from these little private schools."

Ann agrees: "Illinois has been really great about preparing me for the future. It's given me everything I need in terms of practicing leadership skills, learning a lot academically, gaining technical knowledge through design projects and research. It's just been a really powerful impact in developing me as a person."

Both Val and Ann have participated in numerous student organizations. Val recited a litany of the roles they have played in numerous engineering professional societies, both as members and leaders. Also, both have been ELAs (Engineering Learning Assistants) in the iEFX Engineering 100 course. While Val is lead ELA for MechSE this year and also leads an Engineering 100 discussion group, Ann is in charge of all the ELAs this year. And neither has been afraid to "cross the street." Ann played in the band; Val is in the Illinois Club Tennis.

One of Val's favorite activities has been being an Engineering tour guide for prospective students, as well as already-admitted students. ("They got in; we really want to impress them.") Says Val: "I'm really passionate about anything that has to do with recruiting. My experience at Illinois has been amazing, in a big part because of the friendships that I've made and the communities that I've been able to be a part of."

Best Friends
Val and Ann during their sophomore year at Illinois.
Val and Ann during their sophomore year at Illinois.

And one of those friendships that has been key for Val is with her roomie Ann Zuzuly. "Ann and I just have a lot in common. We both have this thing where we're very direct." This comes in handy when one has to chide the other about the condition of the apartment. However, the guilty party doesn't take offense, but goes and cleans up her mess. According to Val, "We're drama free." They're alike in other ways. They're both energetic. They both lose things all the time—Ann is evidently notorious for this.

Val describes her friend in glowing terms: "The thing about Ann, is that she's just one of those people that loves life. I just love people like that." Val reports that Ann keeps her on the straight and narrow when it comes to doing homework: "She's just a good influence on me. I have to thank her for the fact that she's taking the time to push me: 'Val, get off the internet and do your homework,' or 'Hey, Val, did you do this homework yet? Why not?' She honestly cares about me as a person. She cares about my success and about my future, and she wants me to be happy."

Ann admits that she loses things...and confirms the bit about Val procrastinating on her homework: "We kind of balance each other out. She doesn't always like to do her homework right away. But I lose everything; I lose my keys, I lose my cell phone. She's always there to balance me out and keep me a little level-headed. So it's a really good relationship."

Val also reports that Ann is "amazing at giving advice; she always has very good advice. Again, she'll be very forward with me. I'll be like, 'All right, Ann, this is what I'm doing. Something tells me this is a bad decision.' She's like, 'Yup!' Or, I actually don't know which way to go, and the fact that she's so well-rounded, she always has good things to share."

Val Laguna and Ann Zuzuly
Val Laguna and Ann Zuzuly on the steps of Engineering Hall in September 2012.
Graduation and Beyond

Because of the support they've received from each other and others throughout their careers, both are set to graduate: Ann in May 2013; Val in December. What then?

Ann's ultimate career goal is designing more energy efficient buildings. She is currently heavily involved in designing and building Solar Decathalon's Net-Zero Energy House. Not only that, her senior design project is a net-zero energy design for MechSE's building remodel. Of these opportunities, she calls them: "Really, really good hands-on technical experience that will help me when I go out into the workforce."

What does Val want to do when she graduates? Manufacturing. "My dream job out of college is to be at a manufacturing site, working on equipment, being out on the line, steel-toed shoes, safety glasses, safety vest. I'm ok with all of that. And that's actually why I went into mechanical engineering." She relates, "People always ask me, 'So, why mechanical engineering?'" Her response: "I like conveyor belts."

Story and photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative
More: MechSE, Student Spotlight, WIE, Women in STEM, 2012

Additional photos courtesy of Ann Zuzuly and Val Laguna