All the Right Moves

Salam Ali sets the stage for female engineering students past and present

No two rock-climbing routes are ever the same, because everyone takes their own approach. Perhaps no one knows this to be more true than Salam Ali, a senior mechanical engineering major and campus rock-climbing instructor.

The past five years at Chico State have seen her change paths and confront obstacles, but with each determined step, she’s reached new heights.

“My mom always made sure education is our No. 1 priority,” she said. “Knowledge is power, and it’s the key to unlock everything.”

Ali draws much of her inspiration from her mother, who came to the United States as a naturalized citizen at age 20, had six kids by the age of 24, and raised them a single parent. In 2010, she graduated with her degree in psychology the same year her daughter was starting college.

“I say, if I am half the woman she is when I grow up, I will be supremely proud,” she said.

Ali was born at Enloe Medical Center—among the first and only set of quadruplets there to date—and raised in Willows with her twin older siblings. When she was accepted into UC Davis and UC Berkeley, she opted to stay close to home and attend Chico State.

Initially a math and music major, Ali changed her mind two years in and switched to engineering.

“I like working with my hands. I love figuring out a problem and if I can fix it, I will,” she said.

As a first-generation Arab American, Salam Ali has faced bias and discrimination. But perhaps her greatest challenge was being a woman in the field of engineering.

As a first-generation Arab American, Salam Ali has faced bias and discrimination. But perhaps her greatest challenge was being a woman in the field of engineering.

Her fascination with machinery began as a child. She was constantly taking items apart to figure out how they worked and then putting them back together.

On a trip to Palestine as an adult to visit family, she went to work with her uncle at his auto body shop every day. With her small, nimble fingers, she could access areas he could not and was enthralled.

He encouraged her to switch majors, and she made an appointment with the mechatronic engineering advisor on her flight back to the United States. She’s never looked back.

Last year, Ali was honored with the Mechanical Engineering Alumni Award for her dedication to community outreach and promotion of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). She embraced opportunities to teach children robotics through Upward Bound, and created a prosthetic for a woman who had lost several fingers in an accident.

This year, Ali worked to design an off-grid solar charging station that is being constructed outside the Bell Memorial Union to power students’ electronics.

“I can’t wait for five years from now when I walk back on campus. I’m just going to sit there and watch people use it and cry,” she said. “You are solving real-world problems, and it’s letting you leave a mark on the world in some way.”

She also left her mark in another way. As a first-generation Arab American, she has faced bias and discrimination. But perhaps her greatest challenge was being a woman in the field of engineering.

Ali still remembers when she went to her first class, Introduction to Engineering Design and Automation, and saw she was one of only a handful of female students. Someone turned to her and said “Are you sure you are in the right class?”

“‘I have every right to be here just as much as you,’” she recalls saying.

“With nine females in a class of 200-plus men, you definitely feel outnumbered, but don’t let society tell you or dictate what you can and cannot do,” she said. “They have these preconceived notions—I like to shatter all of those.”

Bubbly and boisterous, Ali’s outgoing and determined nature comes in handy when she’s corralling 200 children at Imagineer Day without a microphone. The annual education event, hosted by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), has grown every year, exposing hundreds of children to the world of STEM.

SWE itself, which was on the brink of fizzling out three years ago, also has seen a resurgence during Ali’s involvement as a club officer, hosting resume-building workshops, tutoring youth at the Boys & Girls Club, and, last year, launching SWE Next at Inspire School of Arts & Sciences as the first program of its kind in the nation to target pre-collegiate youth.

In Nashville this October, Chico State’s SWE chapter took home two awards from SWE’s international conference, including the organization’s highest honor.

“It helped me open up in engineering and connect with my fellow female engineers,” Ali said of SWE. “It’s a great support group. We are not just a club and doing activities. We are sisters.”

That connection with her classmates is perhaps what she loves most about her engineering experience.

“Those friends are no longer friends, they are family,” she said. “Chico State means family.”

In addition to her studies, she played bassoon for fours years with Chico State’s elite Wind Ensemble group, has been a teacher’s assistant in ballroom dance for two years, and works at the Wildcat Recreation Center, where she supervises the rock climbing area and teaches students how to climb.

“It works your brain, it works your core, it works everything,” she said. “But most of all, it makes you think. It’s all about how do I get to the next move? How do I solve this problem?”

As she prepares to graduate, her job offers include working on F-18s with the US Navy and Boeing Manufacturing in Nebraska. While she considers her next move, all she knows is she wants to work with her hands, have a thriving engineering career, and eventually open an auto shop just like the one that inspired her to change majors four years ago.

“I’ve been happy ever since,” she said. “It’s where I have true passion.”

 

Ashley Gebb can be reached at agebb@csuchico.edu.


Read more about Ali's involvement with the Society of Women Engineers.

Photo of Chico State grads

126th Commencement

Four days of commencement ceremonies begin Wednesday, May 18. Search #Chico2016 on social media for a live chronicle of events.  See schedule.

Senior Sendoff

A Super Sendoff

The Alumni Association honored the Class of 2016 with a BBQ and fun activities to wish them a fond farewell. Watch Video.

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