I sometimes talk to friends who have children and also with a fair number of young women and men about how one selects a profession that hopefully will be so enjoyable that it will become a career of choice. And inevitably, that brings back memories of how I ended up getting a degree in engineering and spent a good part of my adult life in both Romania and US building up a fulfilling technical career.
In my young life, the educational driving force was my mother. From early childhood, she unequivocally and repeatedly stated that I will get a college degree. Besides not wanting me to become an artist of any kind, I do not remember her ever mentioning a specific field in which I should graduate. But working illegally at home as a tailor (you could not own your business during that time in communist Romania), she knew that my life was going to be much easier if I did not follow in hers and my father’s footsteps. She was a woman of exceptional foresight and she started me learning foreign languages early on; at the age of 3, it was German; at 11, English; then at 13, French. “I am giving you all you will ever need in life and you will be able to take it with you in your brain; no luggage necessary” she used to say. And she was proven right when I landed in New York in 1990 with one bag of clothes, $300 in my pocket, two phone numbers of people I did not know, and no idea where I was going to sleep that night. But I should not get ahead of myself!
So, how did I become an engineer? At the age of 12, I wanted to be an architect! I am still amazed that my first professional choice was a combo of technical know-how and artistic expression; however, a discussion with my architect uncle squashed that in one stroke. He took a match box and placed in the 3 possible positions and said: this is what architecture is in Romania. And in this space, you will have to fit X number of staircases, Y rooms, Z bathrooms, and so on. Beyond that, the details of my talk with him are fuzzy, but I distinctly remember that for better or worse, he convinced me that architecture was not for me. I know, I was 12 YO!
My high school in 2019 when I went for my 40th year reunion. It is currently known as the National College of St. Sava, the name it held back when my dad's father attended in the early 1900s. It does not look much different than it did in my time. The institution was founded in 1694 as the Saint Sava Princely Academy, the first of its kind in the country.
With colleagues 1975-1979 - check out those uniforms! We used to take trips in the mountains that I still fondly remember.
For you to understand how much responsibility was placed on teens back then and how in general terms, career choices had to be made early on, I need to share with you how the education system was organized in 1970s Romania. There were enough spots available in high schools for every single kid finishing 8th grade. But, if we signed up to be admitted to a certain coveted high school in excess of the number of slots available, there was a competition to get in. And before we signed up, we had to also decide if our high school education was to have an emphasis in science or humanistic studies. My mom's mind was made up early that I was going to attend classes at the National College of St. Sava (back then known as the Nicolae Balcescu High School), and it was one of the high schools that required I earn a spot. So at the age of 12, like many of my peers, I started being tutored in sciences in preparation for the competition two years later. And I got in!
Soon after starting high school, the government implemented a major reform in the educational system, creating a staged approach to high school and adding more areas of study emphasis to choose from. So another competition was awaiting me after 10th grade, with another decision on which section I was going to attend. If you are interested to find out more about the educational system in Romania, click here.
We used to put on poetry/music/dance programs in our high school's festivities hall. The National Theater held performances in this hall for a while after its building was destroyed during the Nazi bombardment of Bucharest on August 24, 1944. The last photo is a view of the main entrance hall in 2019 . Neither facilities have changed much since I graduated 40 years earlier.
Pressured by my mother’s desire for me to not select an easy way forward (the competition was much more fierce for some college disciplines), I started to ponder what I might like to become. This was not easy to do because I was one of the lucky teenagers who happened to enjoy many of the disciplines I was studying. I had a passion for natural sciences: biology and anatomy in particular. I liked physics and I revered my high school chemistry teacher thus developing a love for her subject, so my first impulse was to become a doctor. But the reality of it was, I was left to my own devices during much of that time when important life-changing choices were to be made. With no one to advise me, at the age of 15 I asked myself if I could handle being responsible for another human’s wellbeing. Could I live with myself if I made a mistake and they died? The answer was a resounding “no.” And so, I remember thinking, there is always engineering to fall back on, right?
After successfully competing to keep a slot in my high school, at 16 I started to get tutored in math and physics, getting ready for the next competition to enter the Bucharest Polytechnic Institute. But alas, one more decision lay ahead of me: what faculty (which a a bit similar to departments in a US university) should I pick? Because once I passed the admission exam and got accepted, I could not change my degree without dropping out and competing again next summer. (NB: The faculties are distinct academic entities, each having its own admission criteria, largely distinct staff and limited interaction with each other.) With my math tutor’s assistance, I settled upon Power Engineering. After the baccalaureate for my high school diploma, six years of studying and tutoring, and three competitions, at almost 18 I was finally going to college to become an engineer!
With college friends circa 1983 on a field trip and before graduation in 1984.
If anything stands out to me when it comes to educators, it is the significant role the teachers I had over the years played in deciding the course of my life: the passion with which they taught, the dedication they showed in the classroom, the love and support they offered to their students that went beyond imparting their knowledge. It is because of some of these teachers and professors that I developed a curiosity for so many subjects, the desire to read and learn about topics ranging from history to animal behavior, from science in all its forms to yoga and spirituality. I did not even know back then that this transference was taking place between teacher and student. I only became aware years later of how much interacting them has influenced me. It may be that they had charisma, or something that spoke to me personally. Some of these encounters shifted the subtle matter of my being, some of them forcefully pushed my life in a different direction. And while in college, my fluid mechanics professor did just that: he made me want to choose to become a power engineer focused on hydro: hydrology, water resources, hydropower generation, building hydropower plants, engines and turbines. And thus, unknowingly, setting me on the perfect path to become an environmental engineer 10 years later in the US.
Next installment: the beginning of the second half on my life, 30 years ago. The anniversary of my arrival in the US is coming up on July 20!