Section Elevating Student Experience
When adults ask little girls what they want to be when they grow up, not many answer “engineer.” As it turns out, neither did Patti Poppe.
Poppe, who earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Purdue’s School of Industrial Engineering (BS ’89, MS ’91), grew up as the daughter of an engineer. She was not interested in the field, however, until she visited Purdue during the Women in Engineering Career Day.
“It changed my life,” she says.
Today, with the creation of the Eric and Patricia Poppe Scholarship Endowment in Industrial Engineering, Patti and her husband, Eric, are changing lives, too. The couple’s preference is that the scholarship be awarded to female undergraduates in good standing in the School of Industrial Engineering.
Toward narrowing the gender divide
Now the president and CEO of CMS Energy, a Fortune 500 company and Michigan’s largest electric and natural gas utility, Patti sees an unfortunate lack of women in her profession.
A 2017 National Science Foundation report indicates that women’s participation in engineering remains well below that of men. Between 1995 and 2014, women earning graduate degrees in engineering increased by about 10 percent, and women earning undergraduate degrees increased by only 3 percent.
Happily, with its concerted effort to enroll more women — and with support from people like the Poppes — Purdue’s College of Engineering has significantly increased the number of women in its engineering programs. In 2018, women constituted 25 percent of undergraduates.
A degree with many opportunities
A Purdue engineering degree gives women a tremendous set of options. “I can assure you that I would not be CEO of a Fortune 500 company without having the Purdue engineering experience,” she says. “The Purdue credential gives immediate credibility. When I’m introduced as a Purdue engineer, that helps level the playing field pretty quickly.”
Knowing that Purdue continues to offer a competitive engineering degree, Patti hopes that more women will start seeing an engineering degree as an entryway for many career options, not merely a door to a specific job type.
“I think there’s a misnomer that if you have a particular degree, that locks you into a particular field. What I know about engineering, and what I’ve observed many times over, is that an engineering degree opens opportunities in many, many fields,” she says.
That’s because a Purdue engineer knows how to do two crucial things: work hard and solve problems. “There isn’t a field that doesn’t need people who can solve problems,” she says. “When I graduated, I had about eight job offers, from a whole range of companies, from General Motors to the Chicago Board of Trade.”
Like mother, like daughters
Eric says the couple’s cultural awareness affected how they raised their twin daughters. “Girls and boys have equal capabilities, and we helped our girls recognize that,” he says. “I hope that when my daughters enter the workforce, they find that gender is simply not an issue. Maybe that’s a little optimistic, but when I consider my own workplace, I feel that’s a pretty realistic expectation.”
Another fact may support that expectation. Purdue’s College of Engineering reports an 87 percent increase in female undergraduate enrollment in the past 10 years.
Currently, both Poppe daughters are in engineering programs — Margaret in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and Elizabeth in industrial engineering at her mother’s alma mater.
Outreach in the classroom
Patti’s influence extends beyond her own children, to undergraduates taking industrial engineering classes.
Patrick Brunese, director of academic programs in IE, has hosted Patti in his own classes. He says her talks impress upon students the importance of loving their work and taking career risks. “Patti approaches her visits with an exceptional energy and interest, and she tells a compelling story,” he says. “It helps that her career has been filled with interesting experiences, which is at least in part due to the way she approaches her work. She is very passionate about what she does.”
Securing a future for female engineers
Through their endowed scholarship, the Poppes will help more women achieve their dreams of an engineering education. Once the endowment is fully funded, the scholarship will attract bright female engineering students to Purdue’s IE program, currently ranked No. 3 in the nation.
Recent graduate Pamela Yuan (BSIE ’18) understands the value of scholarship support. For her, having a scholarship minimized the need for part-time work to pay for school, and it freed up time to gain other skills. “It’s getting more competitive to find a job,” she says. “Branching out from coursework can really enrich your educational experience and make you a more interesting candidate.”
And that’s what Patti aims to do — empower a new generation of women engineers.
“I just love being able to pay it forward,” she says. “I was right where they are. I love the idea that I could inspire someone to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams.”
Banner Photo Caption
Margaret, Elizabeth, Patti, Eric and Chester Poppe
Investments in Infrastructure
Expansions and improvements to teaching and learning spaces, laboratories, offices
Elevating Student Experience
Scholarships, student opportunities, diversity programs, student clubs
Dedicated to the Cause
Fundraising, event hosting, activity planning, advisory boards, networking with alumni
Laboratory infrastructure and equipment, project startup funds, graduate student support
Administrative funds, student travel and networking, unexpected opportunities
Rewarding, retaining, recruiting faculty and promoting diversity in engineering