Samoan Mechanical Engineer, Emily Sataua Lautoa: “Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there”
Emily Sataua Lautoa | Stanford University | B.S. Mechanical Engineering
After growing up in American Samoa, Emily Sataua Lautoa decided to pursue her college degree on the mainland. While she experienced initial difficulties transitioning to a life away from home, she adapted to her new environment and graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University. Emily talks about culture shock, sexism in the engineering industry and the importance of pursuing higher education. While she currently works as a mechanical engineer, she one day hopes to give back to her community by providing engineering resources to students in her hometown of Pago Pago.
You attended one of the top ranked universities in the world. What do you think helped you prepare for college?
My parents are a big part of why I was able to go to college. Doing well in school was always stressed as a top priority in our household. My mother's career as a teacher also helped enforce the importance of education. In high school, I did a lot of extracurricular activities and I think that helped with developing other skills aside from what you could learn in a classroom. I was class president for 3 years and joined many school competitions, like math competitions and science fairs. I also attended the Junior Statesmen of America Political Science Camp between Sophomore and Junior year of high school, which took place at Stanford. It was there that I fell in love with the campus and that became one of the reasons why I decided to apply.
Many students attend a college that is far away from home. How was your transition from American Samoa to Stanford?
At the start of my freshmen year, I experienced a huge culture shock. I was trying to adjust to the changes in the environment and juggle all of that while balancing classes. It was tough to handle. I did very badly grade-wise my first quarter. We didn’t have AP courses in high school, and a lot of students I knew [at Stanford] came in with AP experience. I didn’t know how much more prepared other students were and second-guessed my own level of readiness for college-level classes. My second quarter, I did a lot better. I just had to adjust to a different pace of life.
Pacific Islanders often times fall into the ‘athlete’ stereotype. Did people ever assume you were only accepted to college because of a sport?
Yes, many times! I ran into a lot of people who - when they found out I was Pacific Islander - would assume that I was there on an athletic scholarship. It was always funny to me because I am so uncoordinated and far from being an athlete.
The job hunt right after college can be stressful. What was your experience like?
Out of college, I didn’t have a job lined up immediately. I would highly encourage college students to start looking way before graduation. Personally, I was unsure about what I wanted to do and where I wanted to live. For the first few months, I was looking for a job, and thanks to a college friend, I was put in contact with a company in Colorado. I first worked as an intern for OtterBox (now known as Otter Products). OtterBox was a great first company to work for and I was happy to learn new things while applying what I had learned from my mechanical engineering courses. My husband is in the military, so we had to move from Colorado to Tucson, Arizona, and that’s where we are now. I then worked for 3.5 years at Apex Microtechnology, a power electronics company, as a Product Engineer. It was a small company that gave me the opportunity to learn outside of my degree and how to balance multiple responsibilities. I had so much knowledge to soak up that sometimes it felt like I was drinking from a fire hose. I’m now transitioning to another company as a Mechanical Engineer II in a subdivision working on missiles.
There aren’t many Pacific Islander women in STEM. What barriers have you encountered working in engineering?
As a female, it can be hard working in this field. At my last job, I was the only female sitting in a cluster of 16 cubicles and that made the gender imbalance in STEM more pronounced to me. There have been times where I felt undermined based on my gender and it's definitely frustrating when that happens. I do see more women joining STEM and more diversity in the field, so that makes me happy and excited for the future.
How do you hope to make an impact in the Pacific Islander community?
In my line of work, many people have mentioned that they pursued mechanical engineering because they had a shop class or something similar in high school. That wasn’t available to me on the island, so my dream is to go back to American Samoa and create a center for students to come in contact with tech. It's not fully fleshed out but I'm envisioning a center that teaches coding, designing and prototyping. I'd like to have 3D printers, laser cutters, and other technologies and materials there for students to use.
In the meantime, I'd love to mentor somebody!
What advice do you have for students preparing for college?
Try to find mentors that can take you to their job and show you around. When I went back home and told my family that I wanted to do mechanical engineering, I was put in contact with a family friend and ended up doing an engineering internship at their company.
Understand and use your resources. Sometimes resources come to you, but sometimes you’ll have to step out and find them. Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. There are people willing to help you with your career and interests.
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