Credential or Experience?

Catherine (Kate) Gleason was the oldest of four children born to Irish immigrants.  Her father owned a business which was a leading manufacturer of gear cutting machine tools.  Kate read books on machines and engineering at a young age.  When her stepbrother died of typhoid fever, she started working in her father’s business.

Kate became the first woman accepted into the engineering program at Cornell.  When the family business fell on hard times, she dropped out of college to help revive the business.  She never completed her degree but was accepted as an engineer because of her experience.

Kate left the business when her two youngest brothers began to exert their “male privileges” that was common in family businesses.  She was able to revive another local business.  This led to financing eight factories for different companies.  Later, she was appointed as the President of a local bank.  She helped a construction company with a problem loan finish its housing contracts.  Subsequently, she turned to humanitarian efforts to build low cost housing.

Kate’s family were friends of Susan B. Anthony, and Kate was a devout supporter of women’s right to vote.  She was also a strong advocate for women to study engineering.  The Kate Gleason College of Engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology is the first engineering college in America named for a woman.  She also endowed a professor who supports women pursuing engineering as a career.

While Kate never finished her engineering degree, she was the first woman elected to become a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering.  Kate died of pneumonia and left most of her estate to public institutions in Rochester, NY.

What constitutes being an engineer?  Is it a diploma?  Is it a license?  Is it experience?  There are those with an engineering diploma who have no sense of the practice of engineering.  There are those who have an engineering diploma but never worked as an engineer.  On the other hand, there are those without a diploma whom engineers turn to for practical advice (e.g. Will this work?).  In every respect, Kate Gleason was an engineer even though she may not have met the requirements for graduation.

As our society has become more credential focused, we have lost a sense of what it really means to be a professional.

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“Experience can’t be taught.” – Anonymous

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