J.F. Downie Smith probably couldn’t have imagined his great-granddaughter Erica Hollander as an Iowa State software engineering major when he was dean of engineering and director of the Engineering Experiment Station from 1948-1959. Software engineering didn’t even exist as a field yet, and in the 1950s women made up less than 1% of students in American engineering programs.
But when Hollander graduates this weekend, she’ll continue her family’s Iowa State engineering tradition started by Downie Smith – and, with her eye on the future, she’s also building paths for other women to pursue engineering and computing careers.
When I decided to study engineering, my dad said, “Well, you can’t go into engineering without checking out Iowa State!” And he was right. Iowa State was the perfect combination of great engineering programs and a welcoming campus that felt different from any other I had visited.
That’s how I found myself in my first coding class in the fall of 2019, without any coding experience before, realizing how much there was to learn and wondering a little if software engineering was the right place for me.
So I sat in the front row of class, took so many notes, and treated Supplemental Instruction for the course like another required class and went to every session. And every time I reached out, I was met with support to help me create a strong foundation in coding.
My TAs answered all my questions, my classmates were supportive, and even friends from my dorm were all super encouraging as I was starting out in software engineering courses.
But I went to an all-girls high school, so I know the power of having a group of women around me to support and push me. It’s why I joined my sorority Gamma Phi Beta – but I also needed that in my major: other women who had been where I was, done it and been successful.
That’s when I found Digital Women and I joined an amazing group of women in other computing majors! I immediately had awesome mentors who always cheered me on and gave me sage advice about things like what classes to take – and how to get an internship.
I found my first software engineering internship at John Deere after my sophomore year. I actually continued to work part-time on that team during the school year, plus I did another summer internship with John Deere after my junior year. Now I’m headed to a full-time job at John Deere in Chicago after graduation.
My fellow Digital Women also encouraged me to take on leadership roles. I’ve been the Digital Women mentoring program coordinator, vice president, and, for the last year and a half, president. It’s been super rewarding to help connect other women just starting out with networking and role models in their field.
As I get ready for commencement, I can’t help but wonder what my great-grandfather would think of me graduating from the college where he was dean.
But, maybe more importantly, I know exactly how my grandma, his daughter, Eleanor Hollander (’63 child development) felt. Before she died earlier this year, my grandma told me all the time how much she loved Iowa State and how happy she was I studied engineering here.
So, I’m really excited and proud to graduate as an Iowa State software engineer. Excited about the progression of technology and the potential to contribute to that – and proud of my family’s connections to Iowa State. And I’m ready to get out there in the work world to continue my commitment to empowering other women in STEM.
Software engineering is a dual-administered major shared between Iowa State’s College of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Hollander also happens to have “dual-administered” family ties to Iowa State:
One great-grandfather J.F. Downie Smith was dean of engineering and another great-grandfather, Willard Hollander, was faculty in genetics from 1951-1976.
Hollander’s paternal grandparents, Eleanor (’63 child development) and Adrian (Ted) (’63 accounting), met on a blind date as Iowa State students and married the day after graduation. At least five other members of Erica’s family have also attended Iowa State.