News | WTS-LA Transportation YOU Committee Hosts Virtual Girls Empowerment Day Event

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by Hayley Rundle, USC, Masters of Urban Planning 2022

The Women’s Transportation Seminar’s (WTS) Transportation YOU Committee hosted its Virtual Girls Empowerment Day event on September 14, 2020. This annual event aims to introduce high school-aged girls to professional development skills and pique their interest in STEM fields, with an emphasis on transportation related careers.


WTS is an organization focused on the global advancement of women in transportation and works to create a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable transportation field. One of the largest WTS chapters, WTS-Los Angeles, arranges various events and programs within the community for young professional women, such as professional development activities, mentoring programs, and outreach to high schools and universities. WTS-LA’s Virtual Girls Empowerment Day program was co-sponsored by METRANS, the National Center for Sustainable Transportation (NCST), USC Society of Women Engineers (SWE), USC Price Associated Students of Planning and Development (ASPD), and the METRANS Transportation Student Organization (MTSA). The attendees of this event included female students from Dorsey High School, Westchester High School, Azusa High School, and the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA).


“WTS-LA’s Annual Empowerment Day for high school girls in the Los Angeles area is a great opportunity to expose them at a young age to the myriad of opportunities in this challenging field,” noted Transportation YOU Committee Co-Lead, and Caltrans District 7 Deputy District Director for Sustainability and Innovation, Barbara Marquez. “Transportation is a critical component of our quality of life, and we need innovative, forward-thinking partners to solve our most pressing issues. Women are underrepresented in this field, and diversity is a key to bringing the best ideas to light. Empowerment Day is a chance to open their eyes to opportunities they did not know existed, and hopefully inspire them to pursue careers in this field.”


This event wouldn't have been possible without the organization of the WTS Transportation YOU Committee members, some of whom are featured here. 


Over the course of the event, the Transportation You Committee exposed student-participants to multiple professional development pathways to STEM Careers and within the transportation sector specifically. The event included ice breakers led by USC students, a panel of industry leaders who shared valuable insights, breakout sessions including a quick study of designing complete streets and creating an effective elevator pitch, and a yoga stretch break led by professional yogi Linda Garrison. The industry panel included Carrie Bowen, California Highway and Roads Leader at HDR; WTS-LA Director at Large Cynthia Guidry, Director of Long Beach Airport; and Danielle Dirksen, an Urban Studies and Planning student at USC.


Danielle Dirksen reflected on her path to choosing transportation as her field of study and career.  “Throughout my college journey, I am very fortunate to have come to that transportation is my greatest passion, without a doubt. I had no clue what I wanted to do in high school, and I certainly didn't know that the entire field of transportation was an option,” she shared. “WTS-LA's Empowerment Day was a chance for me to share my passion with students and my hope is that their participation at least opened them to transportation planning or project management as a career.”


“As the pandemic continues to pull us physically apart, I was so touched by the intimacy and community at the virtual ‘Empowerment Day’ event,” noted college student volunteer Nandhana Nixon, USC Undergraduate, Business Administration student and a member of the METRANS K-12 Team. “It’s definitely not easy to connect with strangers over Zoom, but the organizers put so much time and effort into the ice breakers, games, and activities that the event felt as personable as it would have been in real life. I was also amazed by the speakers, who despite speaking through a screen, truly engaged the audience and made us feel as though we were in the same room. I really believe young girls attending the event were not only able to witness the plethora of STEM careers available, but also the power in a female community like SWE.” 


Danielle Dirksen, BS Urban Planning student and METRANS student worker, provided a student perspective during the professional panel.


The variety of activities and topics covered throughout the Empowerment Day was a highlight for many of the participants. One participant said she particularly “liked how there were different activities planned out,” so the event was not “focused on one thing the whole time.”


There are many benefits to introducing young women to various career paths, even outside of the transportation industry, and with that in mind, this Empowerment Day aimed to provide these students with skills for navigating the workplace and academia as women, as well as general strategies for overcoming commonly encountered challenges that can arise in various professional settings. One of the participants remarked that she appreciated that the event was “interactive” and that the participants “were all given the chance to speak upon certain topics.” This participant also found the guest speakers “professional and inspiring” and the yoga session made the event “unique” and “amazing.” Another participant “liked working on practical skills at the event,” such as the breakout session that focused on developing an elevator pitch.


“Events like these are important because they assist in breaking down perceived and real barriers that exist for young (particularly women of color) in trying to break into STEM fields, noted Nick Tarpey, Master of Urban Planning Student and ASPD member, who lead the ice breaker STEM activity.  “It is so good to humanize professionals in the field, get them to share their experiences and their stories, have the students come away with a few takeaways, and share a few laughs during the whole process. I was pleasantly surprised to see how eagerly the students jumped in and participated in the breakout activities that were planned for the day. The students could have viewed the event as an excuse not to attend their "Zoom classes," but they were very engaged and excited to sit in for a few hours. I was so pleased to be a part of the event. It is still important to craft spaces for people to share their career experiences and inspire others through this process.”


The work of the Transportation YOU Committee continues to benefit these young women even though the event has passed. All of the participants that are seniors indicated they plan on applying to scholarships given out by WTS-LA and continue their interests in the STEM field, and also, transportation.


“As a student volunteer at the Women’s Empowerment Day event, I had the incredible opportunity of working with the brilliant girls that attended,” shared Namitha Nixon, sister of Nandhana, quoted earlier, and also a USC Undergraduate, Business Administration student and a member of the METRANS K-12 Team.  “Interacting with the students taught me the importance of bridging the gender gap in the STEM field through events like this. The ability for girls to learn from other girls is inspirational and especially important in empowering young female voices within a male-dominated industry. It gives girls a chance to see themselves in the future of the technology workforce, and it helps them grow as learners, innovators, and dreamers. I am truly so grateful to have been a part of this influential experience.”



About the Author:


Hayley Rundle is a first-year Master of Urban Planning student at the USC Price School of Public Policy, concentrating in Mobility and Transportation Planning. Hayley is interested in sustainable transportation planning to improve environmental quality, equity, and mobility for all. Hayley serves as the team leader for the METRANS Industry Engagement and contributes to the Student Research Team, summarizing cutting edge transportation research projects and findings for the METRANS Fast Facts for Students series.