President of Society of Women Engineers inspires future students


Gavin Schroeder

Leah Courtney, senior in Engineering, stands in the Newmark Civil Engineering Laboratory on April 15.

By Jessie Wang, Assistant News Editor

Leah Courtney, senior in Engineering, has been involved with the University’s Society of Women Engineers chapter since her freshman year. She is currently the president of the organization. 

According to Courtney, SWE is an RSO that is “connected to a larger international organization to promote women and gender minorities in STEM (to) create a community for them on campus.”

SWE often hosts professional development events, social and mentoring events, service efforts and projects with community schools. 

Courtney began freshman year in a chair position, which is considered the first leadership position in the organization. She was a chair for two years before becoming co-director of the Outreach Committee in her junior year.

“I think for me, I joined SWE because I wanted a community of women,” Courtney said. “Everybody tells you that engineering is a male-dominated field.” 

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Courtney said RSOs like SWE aim to promote inclusivity and foster confidence. 

“SWE and other women in engineering RSOs … provide women the community that they might not find in the classroom, and then it makes the classroom less intimidating,” Courtney said. 

The SWE chapter at the University also places a heavy emphasis on working with local students — ranging from elementary schoolers to high schoolers. Courtney believes that changing the representation of “genders and racial demographics” in the field inspires students to explore STEM careers. 

“It provides them an example of what an engineer can look like — and maybe it’s (different) from the narrative they’ve heard their whole lives,” Courtney said. 

In addition to her love of the campus and the opportunities at the University, Courtney cited a conversation with a student in Engineering as her main reason for choosing to attend Illinois. 

“The biggest reason was when I came and I actually spoke to a Women in Engineering Ambassador, and she made it seem so comfortable,” Courtney said. “Having the opportunity to speak to a current student was really impactful in my decision.”

Courtney is also an Engineering Learning Assistant for ENG 100: Grainger Engineering Orientation Seminar. ELAs act as peer mentors to freshmen in Engineering during their first semester of college. 

“Engineering 100 is a program to support students in their transition from high school to college,” Courtney said. “(As an ELA), you meet the students where they are, and you learn about what their struggles are … and you figure out how to support them.”

For her involvement with the University, Courtney recently received the Knight of St. Patrick Award given by the College of Engineering. 

According to the University’s Knights of St. Patrick website, the award is presented to engineering students “who exhibit leadership, excellence in character and exceptional contribution to the College and its students.” 

After graduation, Courtney plans to first travel to Europe and move to Chicago to work for Burns & McDonnell as a civil engineer. She hopes to continue her membership in SWE by joining the section in Chicago. 

She recommends that younger students seek community and prioritize relationships with people that hold similar values.

“Find the people that inspire you,” Courtney said. “If you have people around you … push you to do good things or do what you want to do, that’s going to help you figure things out.”


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