by Pete Janny & Matt Sweeney, Sports Editor & Staff Writer
Depending on which way one approaches the Manhattan College campus, the athletic endeavors housed in Gaelic Park, Draddy Gymnasium, and Van Cortlandt Park might catch the attention of passersby. These athletic venues are graced by student-athletes with miscellaneous interests and experiences that are sometimes overshadowed by their own athletic prowess. But the dedication required by student-athletes is just as rigorous off the field as it is on it. Within the Jasper Athletics community exists a subculture of women that have chosen to pursue a challenging balance between engineering and athletics rarely seen in Division One athletics.
As the statistics show, not everyone is cut out to study engineering. According to a study done by MIT, approximately 50 percent of students that enter engineering programs drop the major for another degree or leave higher education altogether. To boot, over 32 percent of women leave STEM degree programs during their college careers, according to the Society of Women Engineers in a 2019 study. But of those who have lasted in STEM, the most impressive cohort would probably be student-athletes, especially female student-athletes, who have managed to breakthrough in a field they are historically underrepresented in.
Manhattan College student-athletes Camryn Nici and Sydney Harwood are spearheading the efforts to improve female representation in the engineering industry. Since January 2020, Nici and Harwood have served their fellow female student-athlete engineers as student leaders of SWEAT. With Dr. Christina Cercone of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department acting as their advisor and mentor, SWEAT, which stands for Student Women Engineers on Athletic Teams, has provided a space where the trials and tribulations inherent in pursuing an engineering degree and athletics can be taken on as a unit.
Camryn Nici, former Women’s Soccer Team Captain and President of SWEAT, is currently working toward completing her Master’s degree in Civil Engineering at the college, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 2020. She co-founded the club with Sydney Harwood, current Women’s Soccer Team Captain and President of SWEAT, who is set to earn her Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering this May.
“There wasn’t a space for women engineers on athletic teams to get together and support each other,” Nici said. “Most of the time, it’s very hard to join clubs because athletes have less time in their day, so we wanted to create a club specifically for us.”
Similar to commuter students at Manhattan College, student-athletes have schedules that oftentimes don’t accommodate extracurricular activities on campus. While the commuters formed a Commuter Student Association to serve their needs, the students that SWEAT serves had yet to find a home, which was a void that Harwood and Nici wanted to fill.
“SWEAT was created to provide support for the unique group of female student athletes majoring in engineering,” Harwood said. “It is difficult to find guidance when you are an athlete and an engineer major, the athletic department doesn’t have a good grasp on what engineering is and the engineering departments don’t fully understand the commitment being an athlete is. There are also not many schools that allow their Division One athletes to major in engineering.”
In the case of female engineers, the lack of a strong support system for them historically has had clear implications on their ability to succeed in the industry. Only 30 percent of women remain in the industry 20 years after earning their Bachelor’s degree in engineering, with the same percentage of women citing “the organizational climate” as the reason for leaving, according to SWE. Despite a 40 percent increase in people earning Bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science from 2012 to 2017, including a 58 percent increase for women alone, only 20 percent of those degrees were awarded to women and six percent to women of color. Today, the engineering and computer science industries are 13 percent women, who on average are earning 10 percent less than men in both professions.
Manhattan College has led the way in promoting women to pursue their education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
The long-running Summer Engineering Awareness Program dates as far back as 1982 when it was started by Dr. Walter Saukin of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. It has introduced the world of STEM to several successive generations of women that have gone on to transform the industry by leading engineering departments at various levels and institutions, as well as top-performing companies and government agencies.
According to SWE, as of 2019 the percentage of engineering professors that are female is 17 percent nationally, a far less proportion than the almost 30 percent of full-time engineering faculty at Manhattan College who are female. In Spring 2019, the Manhattan College Chapter of SWE hosted the SWE for Scouts event that invited girl scouts to campus for interactive activities relating to engineering principles. The goal of the event was to encourage girls to pursue a career in the industry, and that especially rings true in light of International Day of Women and Girls in Science which was celebrated on Feb. 11.
“I hope that’s what Sydney and I are doing, even if it’s just inspiring one person to choose a STEM route for their career,” Nici said in regards to inspiring the next generation of women in STEM. “As I got older on the soccer team, I realized that reassuring the younger women on the team that they can pursue a STEM career as well meant a lot to them. Older woman on the team did that for me and I wanted to be that person for others as well. My message to all the girls considering STEM would be to go for it and keep pushing the boundaries of what women can do.”
SWEAT has plenty of event ideas on their agenda and are hoping to make up for the time lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which essentially wiped out its entire first year of existence.
“We have a lot of plans for the future of SWEAT,” Harwood said. “We are currently trying to organize an alumni Q&A where we are asking former athletes who are now in the workforce to come back and speak about their experiences working with the group. We also like to have meetings around registration so that the upperclassmen can provide insight for the underclassmen in what classes are best to take.” Nici said. “After COVID, we hope to make a schedule with all the games of the women engineers so we all can support each other not only in the classroom but on the field, court, track, etc. We also hope to schedule trips to professional women sports games one day that we all could go to together.”
If all goes well with SWEAT, the blueprint may be found for other colleges and universities who are serious about enhancing the experiences of female student-athlete engineers. Nici hopes the infrastructure of the club will keep growing and perhaps even inspire other schools to start their own chapters of SWEAT.
Even though Nici and Harwood have led the club from its conception, SWEAT would not exist if Cercone had not pitched the idea to them.
“She’s the one who came up with this idea,” Nici said of Cercone. “She really keeps us on track with the work we should be doing to keep this club afloat and comes up with some of the ideas for the events. She’s a big sports fan and she’s a great engineering professor who knows how hard it is to do both in college. This club wouldn’t be here without her.”
Nici and Harwood would not trade the experience of being an engineer and a Division One student-athlete for anything. The memories will last a lifetime and evoke the roller coaster of emotions felt, like the lows of staying up late to do work or the highs of winning a big game at Gaelic Park.
“My teammates are some of my best friends and I don’t know where I’d be without their support,” Nici said. “The fact that I was able to major in civil engineering while also being an athlete is something I will cherish forever. You can’t really do that at every college at the Division I level. Playing on Gaelic Park right under the subway is something I’ll never forget.”
With engineers like Camryn Nici and Sydney Harwood going out to design our world and professors like Cercone to mentor them, Manhattan College will continue to be “the college that built New York City” and that should be augmented now with “the college that built the women that did it.”