Alana M. Hill
~The Ms. Engineer Way
Sometimes getting exactly what you wanted doesn’t look like you think it would. When I got a letter of acceptance to my first-choice college… and news of a scholarship… I was happy, of course, and relieved. But I was also sad because I couldn’t share that moment with my mother. She was taken from me when I was in high school in a way that didn’t allow me to privately grieve or process my loss.
When her death played out publicly, I put my head down and kept pushing, kept moving forward even though I was hurt and broken. I was on a mission that was bigger than me – I was going to be a first-generation college graduate. It was a big deal! That acceptance letter wasn’t just for me, it was for all of us. For my family and my community.
It’s not lost on me that National First Gen Day, November 8, is also my mother’s birthday. On this day I reflect on how, against all odds, I went to college. I finished college. I built a career! And now I get to help others do the same, against all odds.
Growing up in a single parent family, my father made sure I was safe, but I was not prepared for success. I would have to find my own way to navigate the road ahead. And let me tell you, it was bumpy! I would have to rely on two of my strongest qualities if I was going to survive – never mind thrive – in college and beyond. However at the time, I didn’t know myself well enough to know what they were.
I struggled in college. I didn’t get the grades I needed. I lost my scholarship. I went home that first summer and worked three jobs at the mall in Houston. I clocked out of one and into another, juggling it all to ensure I could pay my way through school. I did what I had to do at the time to get the future I envisioned.
My most memorable job was at the pet store where I had the unusual accolade of being the highest yielding snake salesperson two months in a row. I put that snake around my neck, and it sold itself! I wasn’t afraid and that encouraged folks to come closer. However, despite their sales success, the snakes were not my favorite reptiles. The store had a chameleon that I would put on my head, and she would change color to match my hair.
I was fascinated by this ability. Chameleons were so adaptable, changing in response to their environments, but they also knew innately what color they already were. That chameleon knew who it was when nobody was watching. It made me think: who am I when nobody’s watching? This was my introduction to the idea of being both authentic and adaptable; to be the best version of myself, no matter what curveballs life threw at me.
Being who you truly are is a beautiful, powerful experience. But to be who you are, you have got to know who you are.
Do You Know Who You Are…Yet?
The yet is so powerful as it reminds us that we are on a journey of fulfilling our potential. We might not be there… yet. Or we don’t have those skills… yet. But we will. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, has devoted her career to understanding how we learn. She believes strongly in the power of ‘yet’, especially for students, saying it provides: “A path into their future and makes them feel that they are on a learning curve rather than a dead end.”
As we move into each phase of our life, personal and professional, we must create space for ‘yet’. Goals won’t be achieved without a plan – that’s your roadmap through the ‘yet’ to ‘yes! I got this!’. It will take time and there will be twists and turns in the road, but by allowing yourself some ‘yet’ and recognizing that you are doing today what you need to do for tomorrow, you will get there.
I wasn’t there… yet… but I was growing more confident in my authenticity and adaptability. I leaned into both. I graduated, against all odds. I started a career in oil and gas, against all odds. The role was demanding and constantly challenging. I was on call – my day would start at 3AM! It wasn’t sustainable but I made it work. I did what I had to do right then to get me where I was going. It didn’t look like I thought it would, but it was success. My responsibilities grew, I was able to make a difference, to influence change. This was a huge realization for me that would shape my future trajectory.
I didn’t want to just feel the winds of change, I wanted to be the change. You are the next wave of change and I want to share one secret of leading change. The key to doing things today for a better tomorrow is to know that you are not doing them just for yourself.
Making An Impact
My success was not just about me. It helped me to encourage and inspire those around me. To lead change that impacted others for the better.
My guiding principle is the proverb “As iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.” It’s about the lives that we can impact, each and every day. I know that if I can help somebody, that lights me up! I know that is part of my purpose – it was what I was engineered for.
Great thinkers throughout history have mused on the role of giving over receiving. “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity” (Leo Tolstoy). Increasingly, there is compelling scientific data to support the anecdotal evidence that giving is a powerful pathway to personal growth and lasting happiness. Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful. You and your classmates expect more from a career than fair compensation. You are looking to join transparent organizations where you can quickly make a contribution to meaningful work that makes a difference in society.
If being in a position to influence change feels a long way off, remember it’s not about waiting until you have “arrived”. It’s about how you serve along the journey. Early in my career as an IT Project Manager, I was a Junior Achievement volunteer at a local underserved elementary school. The kids and I both looked forward to those weekly sessions where they learned about entrepreneurship and business. I realized my sphere of influence was mine to grow, so while I wasn’t a decision maker in the early part of my career, I had proximity to executives that did and used the opportunity to drive change in policies.
This was the first example of seeing how my purpose and position worked hand in hand. When I began to envision my future and the type of change leader I wanted to be, I reflected on how small I felt around such senior managers but how big my impact was by speaking up. I imagined how much more impact I could have if I were elevated in the organization. That’s just what I did; as my sphere of influence grew, my ability to impact change grew as well. I went from volunteering to recruit engineers to championing diversity and inclusion initiatives for women and minorities, even though my role had nothing to do with it. The shared responsibility I felt for the success of others in my life and career was cultivated in those initiatives.
Each time I was led by my catalyst, I found that I had influence that I didn’t anticipate, whether I was on the team or leading the charge.
How Do You Give?
Give without expectation, but to be clear – this is not about saying ‘yes’ to everything or giving reluctantly. Our passion should be the foundation for our giving. It is not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving. It is about choosing the right way for us to give – grounded in that sense of knowing who we are, what lights us up – what is our catalyst?
Getting clear on that catalyst creates a touchstone for our lives. We use it to check our authenticity, but its other great strength is in enabling us to be adaptable. The COVID-19 Pandemic has reminded us how important adaptability is. We have to be able to respond to what is happening around us without losing our sense of self. The struggles we go through in life are calling us to doubledown on our catalysts.
Be the best you, you can be, regardless of what is going on around you. Life is full of change. Sometimes change happens to us, and sometimes change happens because of us. The last few years have shown us that we can’t control much, but we can control how we show up.
Ask yourself what were you engineered to do? What is it today and what will it be tomorrow? Then get busy doing today what you need for tomorrow.
Alana M. Hill is an international change leadership expert, inspiring future professionals to lead change in themselves and others to create inclusive, resilient, and competitive campuses. She is a passionate energy industry veteran who has paved the way for women leaders, with a focus on women of color. Her personal story demonstrates how students can excel, even in the face of adversity. Throughout her career, Alana has led diverse teams and delivered high-impact workshops all over the world!
Alana is an energizing and relatable keynote speaker, encouraging young adults to overcome adversity, build resilience, and convey empathy. She is the author of What’s Your Catalyst? The Power of Managed Change where she guides her readers to discover how purpose and passion give leaders greater influence and impact on the world around them.
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