Heather Nelson is a mechanical engineering and computer science student who is set to graduate from Illinois Tech this May. She plans to continue her career by pursuing work and potentially going back to school to obtain a master’s degree. Heather has been a Scholar since her junior year.
1. We all have our own opinions of good characteristics of a leader, but how would you personally define a leader?
I would say the common way we describe a leader is someone who helps a group move forward through different problems they face. This is a baseline description of what a group’s leader must do to be effective. Beyond this, though, leaders need to have what I like to call “prime skill sets.” Examples include the ability to adapt to change, whether those changes be in group composition or the ideas the group is promoting. In addition to being adaptable, it is also important to be emotionally transparent while leading. The ability to be open with a team about your decision-making process and goals helps earn you trust. It is through this honesty that leaders can establish their authenticity. The more group members perceive a leader as honest, the more likely they are to listen. Another key quality of a leader is responding to failure. Failure is a very tricky concept because how a leader (or any person, really) responds to failure depends on how one takes failure. If you encounter failure and stick with the same approach that lead you to fail in the first place, you are short-changing yourself as a leader regarding your effectiveness and also hurting your team. It plays back in with adaptability. Leaders who are adaptable and honest with themselves generally quickly bounce back from failure. Knowing someone has leadership potential is fairly easy to recognize in my opinion. By observing the way a person speaks, how they carry themselves, and their willingness to adapt within a team, you can get a good feel for the type of person they are. It is that kid in your school project group that always delivers and gets things done. Sometimes the whole of these traits seems unamiable, but they all are representative of a leader. Drive is not something that is easily measurable, as it is observable through interaction, so speaking with and getting to know different leaders is the best way to see if they possess these imperative qualities.
2. What is the best piece of advice that you would give a younger student?
The best piece of advice I would give a younger person is for them to “step back and listen.” Leadership is often presented as being centered around a single person and their decisions, but really the person who listens to ideas of their team and makes decisions based on those thoughts is the best leader. Basically, when you are working in a team, listen and take the time to really consider opinions and goals of your team members. This behavior will help you become a better leader, and it will help get your team to work well together. If you find you have trouble not responding to every comment in a meeting, just think of this: “If nobody in the group says anything similar to my point, then I should respond.” It will help you become more of an active listener, and it will open space for others to participate. This promotes the conversational aspect of group work and helps facilitate the cohesion of groups. Being able to listen well is imperative because it allows you the time to craft deep and incisive ideas. If your responses are taking in the considerations of your teammates, you will find your ideas will be taken more seriously. You have to act like a ‘sponge’ and absorb information to really make strong contributions to a team.
3. What would you say is an event or time in your life that you feel really turned you into a leader?
I cannot really answer this question, simply because I do not feel like there was one single moment or event that signaled to me a pathway to becoming a leader. However, one quality that has had a recurring presence in my leadership path has been that of the “reluctant leader.” What I mean by this is I have never really tried to be a leader, but the skills I have and my willingness to take responsibility for projects regularly leads me into leadership positions. At every job I have worked at, I have had the fortune of floating to a higher position in the hierarchy, even if running for such positions was not my main focus. For a while, I thought this was all happenstance, but after multiple instances, I realized I must be doing something that was putting me at an advantage. When I think about the various qualities that have placed me into leadership positions, I see they include working diligently, actively listening, building rapport with teammates so they WANT to listen rather than just have to listen, and taking on great responsibilities. Even if you dread a job, take it on and learn it. After learning a new skill, you have the ability to take on more responsibility, and it will always result in leadership positions in life. In addition, learning new skills is an experience that cultivates you as a person, helps you grow, and shows a willingness to change.
4. What organizations or roles do you have on campus in which you are a leader?
In the past, I have run the Maker Society, worked with the Illinois Tech architecture robotics lab, and been a part of various other ventures such as working with a team at Illinois Tech to create a social networking app called PinIIT.com. When I first walked into the architecture department’s robotics lab, it was a room full of broken CNC machines and 3D printers. Since starting there, I have been able to rebuild the CNC’s and 3D printers so that architecture students can now operate them. This work ultimately turned the room into a fully functional maker space. PinIIT is an app that allows students at Illinois Tech to create and share events on IIT’s campus. When you log in, you get a map view of Illinois Tech with various pins representing events on the campus. Just tapping the pin allows you to see the event details and RSVP. Since this is my last semester, I have begun stepping down from these leadership positions and projects. As I prepare to graduate, I have taken on more of an “on-boarding” role, where I help train new group members into taking on responsibility.
5. Some of the most defining moments for leaders are during times of difficulty or struggle. Has there been a time in which you were met with a serious problem and ended up becoming a better leader because of it?
Yes, there has been! I was once a Chef de Cuisine at a Modernist French restaurant in a rural part of Minnesota. Truthfully, this experience resembled an episode of Kitchen Nightmares more than anything. Basically, after multiple unsuccessful attempts to make the restaurant successful, hiring me was a last-ditch effort to get things going. When I arrived, the back of the house was an absolute disaster. Along with this, there were numerous sanitary concerns and problems with the flow of the menu. It was a situation where everything that could have been wrong in the kitchen was indeed wrong. Thankfully, after a lot of diligence and hard work, I was able to turn it around with the help of my team. The process was very laborious, as getting the kitchen into place involved two weeks of completely shutting down the restaurant and cleaning up. Our team cleaned and reorganized the kitchen so there was more space for those inside, which made the kitchen easier to work in. The restaurant team also ended up revising the menu so we could cut down on waste of unneeded materials. While both tasks were relatively difficult, letting go of two workers was the most difficult. Although these people were good at their jobs, attitude concerns and moments of general irresponsibility and negativity had a really poor impact on the team and kitchen atmosphere. This was not an easy decision by any means, but I believe that having to let go of someone for the first time is a very defining moment for any leader. In spite of the difficulty of all three tasks, operation “save the restaurant” ended up being a success. It is still seasonally functional, operating in the spring, summer, and the fall to this day.
6. In what ways has the Leadership Academy specifically helped you become a more prominent and confident leader? What has the Academy meant to you?
While Leadership Academy (L.A.) has definitely given me ample opportunity to network with Chicagoland and Illinois Tech campus leaders, it has been the camaraderie and cohesion with the other L.A. Scholars that has aided me in becoming a more confident and prominent leader. With the inspiration of the other Scholars, L.A. helps to cultivate an environment within itself comprised of high levels of motivation and empathy. It is a fantastic opportunity to grow because it has given me a space in which I feel challenged and motivated by my peers to reach new levels. Being a part of the Academy is the defining moment of my time at Illinois Tech, and it has shaped me as the type of leader I always hoped to become.
7. What career objectives do you have once you graduate from Illinois Tech?
The objectives I have for post Illinois Tech graduation are twofold. First, I want to develop and build a personal maker space where my friends and I can develop products and potentially incubate a startup. The second goal is still up in the air for me, which is whether or not to continue my education and get a master’s degree. This would be a significant change from my current trajectory, and major planning and saving would have to be done on my end in order to go back to school. Outside of the maker space and grad school, I wish to have a future job that is fast paced and ever-changing. Challenging problems are something I enjoy, and since these naturally arise in the accelerated environments of certain workspaces, it is something I cater my employment options to. I will be looking into companies with an emphasis on creative problem-solving and working in inclusive teams promoting diversity.
8. Where is a place that you have always wanted to travel to but have never had the opportunity to do so?
There are actually two places I would really love to visit. The top of the list is definitely Spain. My experiences as a chef are enough for me to know the food there is absolutely fantastic. In addition, the street art and graffiti specifically in Barcelona are beyond compare. The second place I would like to visit is Shenzen in China. I believe every engineer should see it at least once in their life, simply to observe where much of our manufacturing occurs.
9. What is one of your fondest memories from your four years at college?
I started off at the City Colleges of Chicago prior to coming to Illinois Tech, and in that space I found a lot of individuals who were in a similar boat as me at the time. With no money and no family to support us in our paths, a large number of us had been working for years just to afford the opportunity to go to school. A lot of the best memories I had were fostered there, where I had the chance to work and study with the other City College students. What is interesting is that a decent amount of them transferred into Illinois Tech with me. Inside these individuals is a drive to succeed and build a better future for themselves and their families. It is a passion that I do not often see in students who did not have as many obstacles to overcome in their pursuit of higher education.
10. Would you rather have started school at an earlier time? What made you switch from working as a chef and in a video store towards a more education-focused career?
If I had been given a different set of circumstances, I can say I would have gone to college sooner. Unfortunately, I did not have the proper structure or support in place when I graduated high school that would have allowed me to pragmatically pursue a college career. Personally, I was also not too certain about how comfortable I was with going to college at the time. As a queer and transgender person, I was facing discrimination every day. Most of my friends, myself included, were being verbally and physically harassed in our day to day lives. Therefore, the thought of starting school and really having to put myself out there was not appealing. In spite of all this, I would not trade the experiences I have had in my life. They have taught me how to be a better person, self-reliant, sociable, and how to pick myself up after failing. These have all been skills that have helped me succeed at Illinois Tech.
With respect to why I left cooking for school: The joke I like to tell is that when you are counting the RPM’s on a stand mixer to optimize and add consistency to a bread recipe, you know you are in the wrong field. This was around the time I had been working in a Molecular Gastronomy restaurant that approached cooking like a science experiment. I started to realize I loved the testing and optimizing aspect of my job, so I made the decision to change my path and go to college. It was more than just the engineering and lab-like approach to cooking that made me switch, though. While I had definitely worked my way up the ladder in the cooking industry, I started to see a limit to what I could do. I felt eventually I would be holding myself back, so I made the decision to become an engineer.