First-Generation Mechanical Engineering Student Looks to be a Female Pioneer in Field
Celeste Barber ’24 comes from a small town in Frederick County, Maryland. As a first-generation college student, she is tackling the male-dominated field of mechanical engineering.
Many engineers say they loved to build things out of blocks when they were children. Not Celeste Barber ’24. “I hated playing with Legos. I was quite the opposite,” she says. “I was always very book smart, but I was worried about being in an engineering program and if I would be able to think conceptually.”
A first-generation student, Barber comes from a small town named Point of Rocks in Maryland. At her high school, she was encouraged to pursue higher education and applied to about 15 colleges. As the first in her family to attend college, she could not rely on their experience to help with the process.
Engineering a future
Barber’s interest in engineering grew from an advanced AP Physics class she took, as well as a fondness for mathematics. “I always excelled in math, and then seeing the applications of calculus being used in physics, I thought ‘this is something that I think I would really like to do,’” she says.
She first learned about York College’s Engineering program during a visit from an admissions counselor. A small school with an outstanding Engineering program, York College was high on her list.
Barber reached out to faculty members in the Engineering Department for guidance. She found them to be very responsive to her as a prospective student. She also received help from the Admissions and Financial Assistance Offices. Their guidance was especially useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, when she would spend long periods of time on the phone with them having all of her questions answered.
Finding her home
“I just felt at home,” she says. “I took the Engineering tour [at the Junior Open House] and an alumnus was giving the tour. He was very insightful, and I think having that student perspective was really helpful.” Other schools often had tours given by students from other majors who couldn’t answer Engineering-specific questions or a faculty member who didn’t have the student perspective.
“But the fact that it was an alumnus from the Engineering Department that gave me that tour, it made all the difference because my questions were answered,” she said. And, when she walked into the machine shop, she couldn’t believe the College had access to that kind of equipment, let alone that prospective families on a tour were able to view such labs.
At first, she was intimidated. “It was crazy to think about all the knowledge I would learn,” she says. “As a junior, I’ll be able to build the structure of a race car, too.”
Barber began her education as a Mechanical Engineering major. She explored other engineering majors, but decided to remain in Mechanical Engineering after experiencing 3D modeling and working in the machine shop.
“Some of my friends who go to larger universities don’t even know their professor,” she says. “Here, I know my professor. There are no teaching assistants. The professors are so easily accessible. They encourage you to go to their office hours and get to know them.”
As a sophomore, she has received a couple of co-op offers for the summer of 2022. She already had the opportunity to gain real-world experience last summer when she worked for Menasha Packaging as a Quality Control intern. “It did just what I wanted it to do––expand my network, show me a little bit about what I could potentially be doing, and I discovered Quality is not for me,” she says. “But having those experiences is good and that’s why I think it’s great that York offers that, because you can kind of narrow down and figure out what you want to do before you get in the workplace.”
A pioneer for women
Women comprise only about 14 percent of engineers. It’s a very male-dominated field. Barber sees herself being that support for other future female engineers. “I would like to someday think of myself as a pioneer. I love encouraging [others]. When I go back home, I would love to speak to my high school about being a woman in STEM, but specifically engineering, because we are so underrepresented and it can be intimidating,” she says.
Barber is fortunate to have a role model who works with Northrop Grumman as an aerospace engineer and happens to be a close family friend. “Being able to connect with her, especially over the past couple of months, and being able to ask her for advice and things like that and what she’s done in her career is super encouraging,” she said. “I hope that someday, when I’m at that level professionally, I can offer that same support and guidance to someone else. It is important to have people to look up to as role models, especially within the discipline that you’re going into.”