As a child growing up in Georgia, the idea of becoming an engineer never occurred to Dianne Leveridge. But the girl who didn't think she was good at math went on to earn a master's degree and then a Ph.D. in civil engineering, and is now guiding other smart young women to act on their true professional talents and ambitions. Leveridge is director of technical programs for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. She shared her journey with Tom Martin.
Tom Martin: Dianne, can you briefly tell us what as a child and a teenager you imagined yourself becoming as an adult?
Dianne Leveridge: I was going to ride on the U.S. Equestrian Team in the Olympics. I started riding when I was about 7 or 8 years old.
Martin: And engineering wasn't even thought of?
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Leveridge: No. No. Not back then.
Martin: And so, you graduated from high school and what then?
Leveridge: In the back of Seventeen Magazine was a little tiny ad for Midway College with a picture of a girl on a horse going for a jump. And I said to my mother that's where I want to go to college. I rode for them back when they used to give riding scholarships and did that for one year at Midway.
Martin: What was your major at Midway?
Leveridge: It was the equine studies program. I had an uncle who trained standardbred horses, and he told me that if I wanted to work with horses, I needed to go to Kentucky, which was the horse capital of the world. So, I went to college for a year at Midway and started working and decided to not go back to Midway, but instead embarked on a career in the horse industry. I worked at a horse farm and worked the sales back then. Somewhere along the line I decided that I would try to do something a little less backbreaking and a little more lucrative. So, I went to beauty school and did that for a year.
Martin: So now, you hold a doctorate in —
Leveridge: Civil engineering from the University of Maryland.
Martin: How in the world did you go from cosmetology to civil engineering?
Leveridge: Oh my goodness. It was a very circuitous route. I've always been a bit of a thinker and a processor. It took a little while for me to figure out that something wasn't working right. So, I started taking one class at Lexington Community College (now called Bluegrass Community and Technical College). I decided that if I was going to go to college and be serious, I'd better take something serious. So, I took Algebra I. It was taught by an adjunct. He walked in, filled all three huge blackboards with algebra in five minutes. And I walked out of there and cried. It was a night class. The next morning, I went to Kennedy Bookstore and bought a workbook that was 25 or 30 chapters. I worked 17 chapters in that workbook in one day and then did my homework that was due the next day. And when I did that, it was a "light bulb moment:" that if I can process that much in one day, there might be a brain in this head that could actually do something.
Martin: To think?
Leveridge: Well, maybe. I remember distinctly in sixth grade "turning off the switch" is what I call it when I talk about it. I had been in the top of the class. Where I was from, girls just weren't taught to think. We were taught to do other things, and I did those things. But being smart and doing math was not part of the picture. So, I shut that switch. I distinctly recall it. So, here I am in algebra at 25 years old thinking, "Maybe I can turn that switch back on." There was me and one other girl who got A's that summer. So, I started looking at UK. I was going to get a business degree. Every degree at UK at that point required Calculus I, and I was terrified of Calculus I. So, I took Introductory Calculus, and that's when I encountered Dr. Lillie Crowley. Every time she had office hours, I was in there, seeking help, trying to understand. And I got an A. The next semester when I took Calc I, I had Lillie again. It was very early still in the semester. She had this habit of opening her desk drawer, putting her feet on it and leaning back in her chair and using just a legal pad, helping me do whatever I was trying to do. And she looked at me during one of those office-hour sessions and said, "Dianne, what is your major?" And I said, "Well, it's business." And she asked me that life-changing question: "Why? You can be a doctor. You can be a scientist. You can do research." And she went down this entire list of things and she said, "You can even be an engineer." And I said, "Don't they drive trains?" Seriously. I didn't know. And she said, "Let's go. You need to go talk to Sita." Sita Subramanian was teaching physics. So, she and I marched down the hall. At that time, they were the two faculty members who were advisers for all the transfer students to UK in engineering. So, I began to just fall in love with math. I think the love had always been there. I just didn't recognize it. I ended up taking all of my calculus from Dr. Lillie Crowley. She and I are still good friends. And I owe my career path and the choice of engineering to her.
Martin: What did you do after getting a Ph.D.?
Leveridge: I worked in manufacturing. I started out writing code as a programmer. My electrical engineering degree focused on programming. It was amazing. I got to travel around the world and see many different cultures, work with many different people. And I think that here in the United States, with the re-shoring that's happening, the growth that's occurring not just in production, but in terms of intellect and development of our own people, we're recognizing that, for example, Appalachia is a rich source of untapped knowledge if we figure out how to enable the growth of it. And I think manufacturing is absolutely out of necessity opening those doors because they have to embrace and include anybody who is smart, trainable, shows up on time, can pass the drug test and learn. You know, people think that manufacturing is dirty, dark and dangerous. And that is the furthest thing from the truth. It requires people with really capable skills to really embrace differences because that's how we're going to solve the problems that manufacturers are facing.
Martin: In your position as director of technical programs at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) do you see yourself serving as a role model for young women? Could you be a Dr. Lillie to somebody else?
Leveridge: You're not the first person to ask me that. Yes. The short answer to your question is yes. I do see myself somewhat as a role model, but more as a role model for people who believe they can't think. When you believe that you can't think, that's a bigger hurdle than any that we have to overcome because that's the hurdle of self.
Martin: So, offering encouragement to think broadly, openly, versus focusing on a particular career path?
Leveridge: Yes. That's correct. I see this in a lot of young people today. They want the answer. They want whatever it is that's going to get them the grade. There's a compelling lack, in my estimation, of stopping to look at the problem, and what is it you are trying to do? It's a thought process that's missing on a lot of levels, but that's the skill the workplace needs and that's the skill that is lacking. Yes, you've got to think about what it is you are trying to do. Don't worry about the A. Worry about the problem.