Ukari Figgs: Basketball Champion and Mechanical Engineer
Trace a path from the tobacco fields of Georgetown, Kentucky; to the engineering classrooms of West Lafayette, Indiana; to a basketball arena in Los Angeles, California; and then finally back to Kentucky, this time at a 7-million-square-foot automotive factory. For Ukari Figgs, this unique path led to an equally unique career.
"I grew up on my grandfather's tobacco farm," Ukari says. "That's what sparked my desire to learn how things worked. I'd watch my grandfather try to fix his tractor or hay baler with whatever tools were in the box." Ukari applied this hands-on love of fixing things to her school work. "The more I studied and learned about math and physics, the more I was drawn to engineering."
At the same time, another interest bubbled up: basketball. She played organized sports as early as age 6, even though there were no girls' teams in her hometown. "My dad and I went up to the table, and they gave me the cheerleading application," she remembers. "I said, 'No, I want to play basketball.' And they said, 'There aren't any girls in the basketball league.' And my dad said, 'There are now!' "
She excelled at the sport -- not only playing against boys, but playing on the varsity high school team by her eighth grade year. As a senior, she was named Kentucky's Miss Basketball, and a high-profile college career seemed a sure thing. But where?
"I chose Purdue, not only because I wanted to win a national championship," she says, "but also because I knew they would allow me to pursue my engineering degree." She also wanted to team up with one of her new classmates, Stephanie White -- Indiana's Miss Basketball and National Player of the Year. "Stephanie and I are like sisters; we're still the best of friends. We both wanted to come to Purdue and win a championship."
Early on, those prospects seemed dim. Purdue went through three head coaches during Ukari's tenure. At the same time, Ukari faced the monumental task of going through the rigors of a Mechanical Engineering curriculum, while simultaneously devoting her time to basketball. Her advisors suggested an easier major, but she wasn't deterred. "I knew I could do it," she said.
Inspiration came from an unlikely source. As a sophomore, not yet starring on the basketball team, a Purdue newsletter quoted one of her lifelong dreams of becoming an astronaut. A few months later, a letter arrived at her Owen Hall dorm -- from Neil Armstrong. "He told me that I would have loved the moon, because I could easily slam dunk, backwards with two hands!" The letter is now framed at Ukari's house. "To have the guy who walked on the moon take the time to write me a letter, it was definitely one of the coolest things that happened to me at Purdue."
Everything came together during her senior year, and the Boilermakers soared to a 34-1 record, making it to the 1999 NCAA national championship game. While most of the team focused on basketball that weekend, Ukari had a more pressing concern: "The Final Four was at the end of March, and we had exams in Heat and Mass Transfer. The only option was for an athletic trainer to proctor the exam in the hotel, the day before the national championship. I did my best, and ultimately got a B in the class, so it must not have been too bad. But I joked that the reason I shot 0-for-8 in the first half of the championship game is that I was still worried about my Heat and Mass Transfer exam!"
She certainly recovered in the second half, scoring 18 points after teammate Stephanie White went out with an injury. Purdue beat Duke 62-45, and Ukari was named Final Four MVP. "When the clock was winding down," Ukari recalls, "I looked over at Stephanie, and we just couldn't believe it." The team received a hero's welcome back at Mackey Arena, having won Purdue's first national championship in any sport since 1961. They even travelled to the White House, where Ukari gave a Purdue jersey to president Bill Clinton.
Basketball continued to play a big part in Ukari's life, as she was drafted by the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks. But Ukari had other paths she wanted to pursue. "I never had an engineering co-op or internship experience," she says, "because basketball took up so much of my time. So in the WNBA offseason, Purdue helped me get an internship at Caterpillar in Lafayette, which I did for two years. It's so important for students to get that real-world working experience."
She played a few more years in the WNBA, and also dabbled in coaching, before deciding that engineering was what she really wanted to do. And her destination was surprisingly simple: back home.
Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Kentucky (TMMK), located in Ukari's hometown of Georgetown, is an immense complex with more than 7,000 employees. "I'm assistant manager in the production engineering department," she says, "which means I do a little bit of everything." She deals with the parts and the tooling used to manufacture the Camry, Avalon, and Lexus ES, and finds every day to be a new and exciting challenge. "For me, every day I come in, I feel like I'm going to help somebody, whether it's one of my team members, or a customer who gets the car they need."
It also means exercising many of the skills she learned as a Mechanical Engineering student at Purdue. She remembers: "For every homework, you had to write out the problem, givens, assumptions, analysis, and conclusions -- all on this green engineering paper. But I do the same thing here at Toyota! It drove me crazy at the time, but it's definitely been helpful in problem solving."
Looking back over sports championships and career success, Ukari says she's thankful for the influences in her life from both fields. "Basketball obviously has done some great things for me, including getting me an education. But whatever you do -- whether it's sports, or engineering, or whatever field you select -- a mentor is very important. I have several mentors from Purdue that I still keep in touch with, because you need those people telling you that you can do it."
Special thanks to Toyota: Ashley Chatham, Rick Hesterberg, Dan Nied, and Lisa Yamada | http://toyotageorgetown.com