College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Guest post: Creating positive change through engineering and leadership

Erika Vaassen
Erika Vaassen
Erika Vaassen is a senior in chemical engineering.

“The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time.”

– Brené Brown

Before I even officially chose Iowa State, I was approached by a learning community called Women in Science and Engineering. After hearing more about the program on my campus visit, I quickly made my decision and then moved into Friley Hall for my freshman year. I had a blast getting to know that group of extremely talented women. Most of it was through the joys of floor events, basketball games and study nights. For our peer mentors, it was more than just checking in occasionally. They were truly there to help us navigate the often challenging college experience of being in a technical field. WiSE allowed me to build some incredibly meaningful friendships and really begin to understand how critical we were to each other’s success.

In fact, it was one of these women who introduced me to Engineers Without Borders. It was here that I learned how to build more efficient cook stoves for a community in Mali, Africa. The unique thing about EWB is that this is a group that completely embraces the social aspect of engineering. Understanding, committing and working with the community is core to technical projects taken on by students across the world. While the paperwork and planning can be tedious, you learn exactly how things worth doing won’t always have the easy answers. It takes students who are honest, purposeful and willing to search for the best solutions instead of the familiar ones.

Erika Vaassen studies abroad in Turkey
Vaassen enjoying her study abroad experience in Turkey.

Through EWB, we learned how communities thrive when local ties were strengthened, and we sought to do that at Iowa State as well. This idea led me to create a Freshman Leadership Board, where we organized campus-wide events around poverty awareness. It was incredibly rewarding to see the support and encouragement that WiSE had given me actualized through this group, especially as members realized their own value as first-year students and gained confidence to try out new leadership roles. It even pushed me to study abroad in Istanbul last fall – a world so different from what I had known growing up in Indianola, Iowa.

In my last semester, I am thrilled to be leading another organization as we prepare for our 50th year of celebrating that promise to make a difference through engineering. Engineers’ Week is challenging top student leaders to engage with our bright minds on campus to better understand what makes engineering worthwhile to them. Our goal is to connect the college’s departments and student organizations to share that vision with the rest of the university.

Through these extracurriculars I have learned to work with others to take an idea and create positive change. I can now look forward to graduation in December knowing that I am leaving Iowa State with a greater sense of purpose and as an engineer who appreciates the challenges of working in a world beyond the classroom.

Erika Vaassen is a senior in chemical engineering. If you’d like to connect with her, please send a message through LinkedIn or email