Finding Her ‘Fit’ at Kent State to Make an Impact
Using Kent State University’s exceptional student support and career resources, senior aerospace engineering major Sydney Bihn followed her instincts to her true career calling.
Since high school, Sydney Bihn’s plan was to become a teacher, specifically in middle childhood education. When it came time to choose a university, she wanted to stay in Ohio to take advantage of in-state tuition.
She visited several Ohio universities, including the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, Ohio State University and Miami University. Then, she and her father toured Kent State. While visiting campus, Bihn says, “I got that feeling.
“I felt it was a place where I could just be myself and whoever I wanted to be, without judgment,” she says. “There were all kinds of people here, everybody doing their own thing.”
During her time at Kent State, Bihn realized that education wasn’t her true calling. After talking with career counselors and her mentors, she made the bold switch from education to aerospace engineering three years into her time on campus.
She will be the first woman to graduate from Kent State with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. She is excited to be a trailblazer, but also aware of the lag in women entering STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields nationwide. “There’s a significant issue,” she says. “Diversity in general, not just women, especially women of color. It’s disappointing that we’re still at that point in society that women aren’t encouraged as much as they should be to enter STEM fields.”
Following Her ‘Feeling’
Three years into her studies in education, Bihn began to experience what she calls “a gnawing feeling,” a sense that this career path wasn’t leading to what she truly wanted. She visited the Career Exploration and Development office where the career advisors provided resources that helped her determine engineering was the right fit for her.
That support and assistance, Bihn says, is one of the things that sets Kent State apart. “I think that’s incredibly unique about Kent State compared to a lot of other universities,” she says. “I have Kent State to thank for where I am not, because there’s just this feeling, and support in figuring out who you want to be and who you want to become.”
Bihn is still in touch with her mentors in the education program because they were fully supportive of her decision to switch majors – even as close as she was to graduation. She has also found new mentors in the engineering program.
In moving from education to engineering, Bihn didn’t find many crossovers in the curriculum. However, she had been studying to teach math and science, which connected to the math in her engineering classes – and other important skills. “There were definitely benefits from starting in education,” she says, “just from being comfortable speaking in front of people, being a leader, accepting criticism and continuous improvement.”
Bihn’s advice for other students who might be considering a change? Don’t be afraid to take a chance. “If you have that gut feeling, follow it. Don’t just go with something because it’s the path you selected years ago,” she says.
She cautions students to be sure to do their research before they switch, of course, but with the assurance that there are people at Kent State that are specifically there to help. “You’re not going to be alone in trying to make it happen,” she says. “You have an entire support system of people on campus that will try and make it work for you, to let you pursue your dreams. This is the place, definitely, to do it.”
Embracing New Experiences
Some of the things Bihn enjoys most about the engineering program at Kent State are the many opportunities for new experiences and travel. In her first year, she represented Kent State at the Farnborough International Airshow in England. She also has traveled for competitions and conferences, including a trip to SpaceVision in Arizona in November.
“Engineering opens doors like that,” she says. “You have the support to do that kind of stuff, to help finance it and help get you there.” She notes that she is in a fellowship and has made friends with people attending other universities. Some of these students are unable to attend conferences because their programs lack funding. At Kent State, Bihn says, “I show up with the paperwork and they’re like ‘We’re sending you,’ and I’m like ‘Wow, this is awesome.’”
She describes the faculty in her engineering program as “brilliant and talented.” As educators, Bihn says, they excel at explaining complex ideas and they give students “real-world concepts and ideas” instead of “cookie-cutter problems.” She says the college has worked hard to hire the right people to create an exceptional program for engineering students.
Exciting opportunities outside of coursework help engineering students learn even more. Bihn is the secretary of Kent State’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics student organization. She is also project manager for the AIAA Design/Build/Fly team this year and was the project manager for the unmanned aero systems team last fall. “The Design/Build/Fly projects are what make you an engineer,” she says. “Time spent in classes, doing the math and getting high grades is very important, but applying that knowledge in activities like these – hands on – is what makes a successful engineer,” Bihn says. “And having these experiences also sets you apart from other people on job interviews,” she adds.
Plans for the Future
Bihn met her fiance at Kent State and has a wedding planned for October. “I’ve met all my best friends here,” she says. “I’ve been in three weddings of friends who graduated from Kent State, and all of them are going to be in my wedding – and obviously they all graduated on time,” Bihn says, laughing. “I’m the only one still here.”
As for her career, it appears that Bihn’s prospects are as wide as the sky. She has interviewed with big-name aerospace companies with contracts for the military as well as the space industry. One company is a West Coast startup called Virgin Orbit. It launches satellites into space from aircraft instead of from the ground. “It’s a little more efficient that way,” says Bihn. She spent last summer working for a California company that is developing an “air taxi,” an all-electric vehicle to transport people in cities and other urban environments.
Bihn is also interested in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technologies and has worked for the last two years on UAV teams here at Kent State. Last year, her team built a hex copter, and this year they’re working on a radio-controlled bush plane. UAV career fields are intriguing to her because they are the newest and most underdeveloped. “It would be a cool spot to get into and let you make a name for yourself in being an expert in that,” she says.
“When it comes to my first job, I’m also specifically looking at the environment I would be in and how much learning and growth opportunities there are in the environment,” Bihn says, “because you can always use that leverage to get into the specific industry that you’re looking into.”
Bihn is aware of her role as a vanguard. It’s something she embraces because she has a passion for education and encouraging young minds. “Whether women in the industry realize it or not, there’s a lot of proving yourself,” she says. “It’s not assumed you can do things like it is with men in engineering.”
Asked how she might introduce herself to someone, to let them know who she is, Bihn says, “Hi, my name is Sydney, and I am a Midwestern girl who is ready to impact the aerospace industry and pave the way for other women to do the same.”