Birth of a Leader

Jessica Tobelmann loves being on the inside. It’s where she can see how things work—and work to make things better.

The 22-year-old chemical engineering major hasn’t always been so eager to get involved. As a high school student in Plymouth, Minnesota, she played volleyball and volunteered a bit, but lacked basic leadership experience.

“If you had told me in high school that I would end up as general cochair of Iowa State’s week-long celebration of engineering (E-Week),” she says, “I would have said, ‘No way!’”

Challenging one’s self, motivating others

Tobelmann’s transformation from team member to leader began practically the moment she stepped on campus in August of 2006, when she joined the college’s Engineering Leadership Program (ELP). While it may seem out of character that she would even apply to ELP, Tobelmann says she decided to give it a try because the program’s focus on engineering and public policy intrigued her.

That first year was challenging—Tobelmann remembers being terrified when she had to speak in front of her ELP peers. But, she says, that type of experience built her self-confidence and prepared her to speak before all kinds of groups. And when ELP leaders asked freshmen to set their four-year goals, Tobelmann responded that by her senior year she wanted to chair E-Week, the student-led project that plans a full week of activities to inspire future engineers and provides networking opportunities for students, faculty, and alumni.

To prepare for this role, Tobelmann pursued a variety of experiences. She joined the Society of Women Engineers(SWE) and Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE). Through these organizations she soon discovered that not enough women chose technical fields for their vocation, and those who did often left after several years. So Tobelmann took advantage of the opportunities WiSE and SWE offered to explain to elementary, middle, and high school girls what she calls the “trendy” side of engineering.

“A question I love to ask,” she says, “is, ‘Hey, I’m a chemical engineer. What do you think I do?’”

When, typically, these girls say that she works with chemicals, Tobelmann, who interned with General Mills and will join the company after graduation in August, responds, “No, I work with Fruit Roll-Ups and Cheerios. I’m in a manufacturing facility and am making your breakfast cereal. How cool is that?”

Tobelmann notes that many of these younger students acknowledge they like science and math but think being an engineer means working in a lab all day. “If you like working in a lab, that’s great,” she tells them. “But I explain that there are other options too. Engineering touches all of the things we use in our everyday lives, from cereal to iPods. I try to open their eyes to these opportunities.”

A leader spreads her wings

For her ELP leadership learning project, Tobelmann teamed with colleague Heather Wilson, a senior in mechanical engineering, to establish the Ada Hayden Scholars Program for college women in science and engineering. Named for the first woman to earn a doctoral degree from Iowa State, the program brings in speakers for monthly seminars to help students develop leadership and networking skills. Wilson and Tobelmann have also used AHSP to organize learning communities, develop peer mentors, and offer group readings and discussions of books such as Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office .

“Our goal is to give women the tools to be leaders on campus and successful when they go out into their careers,” Tobelmann explains. “These are things Heather and I got from ELP, and we wanted to spread them to other students on campus.”

After leading the program in 2008, Wilson and Tobelmann now serve as advisers to student directors selected from the first Ada Hayden cohort.

While at Iowa State, Tobelmann has also been active outside of science and engineering with projects she describes as pushing her beyond her comfort level. She was Gold Division (i.e., non-Greek activities) cochair for the Homecoming 2008 Central Committee and recruitment cochair for the Veishea 2009 Executive Committee. Veishea, she says, gave her insight into everything that must be addressed in planning such a large-scale event. And, as the only engineer and non-Greek on the homecoming committee, she worked with an entirely new group of people.

“Engineering and English majors think differently,” she observes. “I learned how to pull people’s strengths out to achieve success.”

Each of these previous experiences helped Tobelmann as she and Adam Weaver, a senior in civil engineering, cochaired E-Week, overseeing its executive committee and five subcommittees. Using creative problem-solving tactics, she says, she and Weaver reduced the E-Week budget by 18 percent yet still drew record attendance at many events. They also gained insight into risk management, anticipating what might go wrong and preventing it from happening.

With her university career coming to a close, Tobelmann says she has learned a lot both in and out of the classroom.

“I am prepared for my job and for life,” she says. “Plus, I know I’ve done things that will affect future generations of engineers.”

Adds Tobelmann, “That is a great feeling.”