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  • culmegan

We Rise by Lifting Others

This slogan, "we rise by lifting others" was the slogan of the 2021 Women Empowered in STEM (weSTEM) conference hosted by the Graduate Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE) at UIUC. It came back around at the 2022 IEEE Power and Energy General Meeting, and things coming full circle seemed to be a theme for me at that conference.

I reconnected with Chan, the chair of the very first IEEE conference I attended in New Orleans 6 years earlier, which had inspired me to be an active member of IEEE. I had met Chan at a handful of other conferences over the years, and while I knew him, I was a little surprised to learn that he remembered me so well too.

I talked to Dr. Kezunovic, who presented me with IEEE PES awards while I was at Texas A&M. I got to tell him about my journey in grad school and my first fulltime year at Idaho National Laboratory.

I chatted with Larissa, whom I'd met for the first time just a few months previously at IEEE PES T&D. We talked about more opportunities to work together, and she introduced me to more people doing awesome work in IEEE.

Now this might just sound like regular networking, reconnecting with contacts and making new ones. But this was the first time I felt like I attended an event and not only met new people, but that others actually recognized me. It was a heartening feeling.

Perhaps the most meaningful full circle that was closed was being invited to speak at the Women in Power networking reception by the IEEE PES President, Jessica Bian. I met Jessica at the GM in 2019, when I was just getting ready to start at UIUC. Jessica gave me a t-shirt to pass on to my new advisor, Dr. Pete Sauer, who was unable to attend an event they'd had earlier in the year. Over a year later, I recommended Jessica as a speaker for two events I was helping organize, weSTEM and the Power and Energy Conference at Illinois (PECI). Due to these events happening during the height of Covid, they were both virtual, which allowed Jessica to be a keynote speaker at both events. She gave great talks at both events, but especially because of the virtual setup, I didn't think she would really know or recognize me.

However, while hosting an impromptu round-table style of speeches at the Women in Power reception, Jessica was looking around the room and inviting faces she knew to tell their story. While a respected professor was sharing her story, Jessica tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I wanted to share. I don't know how she spotted me and placed me among the dozens of attendees, but she asked if I would like to share my experience as a student leader. I accepted, and used my minute and a half on the podium to emphasize that especially as a student, I always got more out of volunteering than I put in, and that IEEE-sponsored scholarships had made a big impact on me. I encouraged students in the room to look for these opportunities, and those that were further along in their careers to give back.

Afterwards, two interesting points came up while chatting with Jessica. One, she remembered that I was part of weSTEM. She loved the slogan from that year, "we rise by lifting others." It stuck with her so much that even though her daughter had stolen the t-shirt we mailed her, she had it as sticky note on her computer. Two, she got a question at the PECI conference from one of my classmates. He asked why PES did not directly address climate change. That question stuck with her, and she advocated for and answer. There is now a PES Task Force on climate change, because of the question of a grad student at a small conference, and because a keynote speaker was really listening to the discussion, and made an effort to use her position to push for change.

It was really awesome to have people from so many stages of my college and profession career come back within one event. It was even cooler to see how I had started to make a small impact in the industry, evidenced by the fact that these people whom I respected and admired remembered me and were interested in what I was doing.

And of course, I'm always happy for an opportunity to share the research that I'm working on. Presenting a poster made me feel like a student again. I hope that all the lessons I've learned as a student and beyond stick with me, and that I never forget what it's like to walk into a room of thousands of people where I know no one, and figure out how to make the most of it. That being said, I hope that more and more conferences I attend give me this feeling too, one of belonging and confidence that I matter and the work I'm doing matters.

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