Friday, December 16, 2016

I Belong in a Cow Suit

It was announced today that I've been named one of the Idaho Business Review's Women of the Year for 2017.  I'm grateful to the woman who nominated me. I met her when I was a sophomore and she was a junior in high school but don't honestly know her very well. I hope to get to know her better in the future. I'm grateful for this entire opportunity that forced me to find the words for the following  portion of the materials I provided to the selection committee. I took a deep breath and a big risk and included the photo below with my application.  I'm glad the selection committee has a sense of humor, but really... if we are going to get anywhere in this world, we need to disarm ourselves, be vulnerable and learn to laugh together. 


My personal, and un-articulated-until-now, philosophy is… I belong. You belong. We belong. Perhaps it was growing up hearing feisty female rocker Pat Benatar sing it. Perhaps it was my mother telling me over and over and over. Or perhaps it’s after successes (and failures) in any number of arenas, I firmly believe - We belong.

In elementary school, I belonged on the football field at recess with the boys because I was an athletic little thing from the get-go and that’s where I wanted to be. In high school, I belonged at the helm when I became the 4th female Student Body President in Pocatello High School’s 99-year history. In college, I belonged on the volleyball team as a walk-on who eventually earned a starting spot, and in my graduating class with only one other woman—I belonged at the front of the line to lead the College of Engineering’s processional. When I am the only women in project meetings at work—I belong. When penning columns for the local newspaper, often as the only woman and minority—I belong.

Two critical encounters early in my education are most noteworthy for either fostering this belief or compelling me to embrace it and beckon the courage to live it. During my senior year of high school, I was taking an advanced placement physics class. It was difficult to manage between student council, volleyball and band, so I petitioned to get out of it. My principal wouldn’t let me. During a one-on-one meeting she said firmly, “You are a smart young lady who can handle it, and I’m not going to let you think that when it gets hard you can just quit. Forget it. Now get going because I’m sure you’ve got some studying you could be doing.” I was awestruck.

In part because of my former principal, I majored in engineering. At the beginning of my sophomore year in college just as I had walked on the Idaho State volleyball team, one of my professors arrogantly told me that I should consider a different major if I insisted on the “volleyball foolishness.” I didn’t argue with him or complain or take the issue to the Dean. I went to work. I earned a 98% for my final grade and through that experience I learned that, despite his “recommendation,” I belonged in his class—right at the top of it, actually.

Early in my career, I coached JV volleyball as an after-work hobby, but when presented with an opportunity to work with a middle school math club, I went from coaching athletes to mathletes. It took me a while to get the hang of it—the poor math kids had to do pushups and wall sits when they missed their times tables or forgot their homework, but once I found a groove, we all had a blast! I’ve received numerous notes from parents and former students about how their beginnings in our little club led to a love of math or career path in STEM. That kind of feedback always keeps a gal going.

I jumped into that endeavor originally to inspire girls to develop a love of math and the sciences and to see the potential for themselves in the field. But I realized that my influence on the boys was just as critical. Girls—you belong in the STEM classes! Boys—the girls belong in the STEM classes! My messaging for both boys and male colleagues alike is to not just accept us—but expect us. We belong. 
Part of letting kids know they belong is helping them to develop confidence. Part of remembering that *I* belong is keeping up my confidence. I’ve found a most unorthodox, original and downright amusing means to accomplish both of these: a cow suit and a cape.

I got my first cow suit as a Halloween costume while in college, but I resurrected the floppy ears and udders for a few silly occasions now and then. One day while crafting some math puns for a welcome address at a regional MATHCOUNTS competition, it hit me. The COW-CULATOR!

Many comic book super heroes wear capes and what do super heroes do? They solve problems—just like mathletes, just like STEM professionals, just like me. A friend of mine made a shiny red cape with a large black and white felt calculator on the back, and I began teaching lessons dressed up. Word got out and I was asked to speak at assemblies and events to let kids know that they, too, could become a problem-solving STEM super hero.

A few years after the Cowculator was born, I began writing columns regularly for the Idaho State Journal with themes centered on a more civic forum for political discussion, diversity and inclusion, girl power, and kindness and humanity. I also began manufacturing experiences in my cow suit to write in my blog called Cow Suit Saturday. As I became a more known figure in our community, I was approached by the school district to deliver a monthly CAKE Award celebrating character, attitude, kindness and encouragement—in a cow suit. I added a purple cape and created the Cow Crusader for Kindness.

I’m not a petite woman, so every time I throw on a cow suit, I take a deep breath. Courage and confidence are a like a muscle. It’s good to work them now and then to keep them in shape, and boy oh boy, does running around in a cow suit and cape on my lunch hours exercise my courage and confidence. Central to knowing I belong and believing that everyone else does too—is kindness and the courage to be kind in the face of unkindness. The Cow Crusader for Kindness talks to kids about this once a month, and I talk to myself about this even more.

It took this nomination for me to realize that all of my influences and much of my life’s work, both professionally and personally, has centered on the fierce belief that we belong. Thank you for the opportunity to condense all these years in and out of a cow suit into such a simple concept. One of my goals is to edit the entries in my Cow Suit Saturday blog and write a book someday. Professionally, I hope to develop into a better technical writer and blogger while continuing my job as a physical designer.

I know the “udder” silliness and slight irreverence isn’t for everyone, but I wasn’t born with a seriousness to become a CEO, the resilience to lead a non-profit or the talents to be an artist. The smiles I’ve seen and the smiles I’ve had tell me over and over that to continue to make a mark on this world and change it for the better—being an engineer is cool, but I belong in a cow suit.
Photo by Amy Millward  - Thanks, Amy!