When Sparta senior Alyssa Graham was still in an infant car seat, she would stretch toward the window and yell “Corvette!” whenever she spotted one zipping by. Today, she can strip a diesel engine to its block, reassemble it and bring it purring back to life.
When her father died seven years ago, Alyssa decided she wanted to pursue the same passion he had – an inside-out knowledge of cars and a love of the open road.
That pursuit has taken Alyssa down an unconventional path to face the challenges and opportunities of entering a male-dominated field, beginning in the classroom.
On her first day in the Kent Career Tech Center’s Automotive Technology Program, Alyssa said she and Sparta senior Tiffany Tasma sat in the back of the classroom, and a male student turned around and asked if they were lost.
Tiffany recalled saying to Alyssa, “So that’s how it’s going to be.”
“We had to group up just us girls for a while until our teachers put us into different groups,” Alyssa said. “It took quite a while for the guys to warm up to us. We are different compared to most girls with what we do outside of school.”
Today, Alyssa and Tiffany are inseparable in the garage.
“We don’t go anywhere without each other,” Alyssa said, “And we get our work done. We get it done fast.”
Of 170 students in four sections, 13 are female, and each section has at least one. Alyssa doesn’t see this as a challenge so much as an edge. “We have a different view on things,” she said. “Even women’s hands are smaller. We can get into smaller places” inside an engine.
Tiffany added that college advisers have told her that women who have her skills really stand out among their male competitors.
Classmate Mackenzie Olmstead said that despite the male domination of the field, it doesn’t change how she approaches her work. “I don’t really feel the need to prove myself because I know that I can do it, and the teachers know it,” Mackenzie said. “If it was a dealership job, I’d just show them that I could do a good job and that I’m worth keeping.”
Regardless of talent, the road is long for many women. On job shadows and during class evaluations, Alyssa said, men from the industry have been surprised to see a female in the program, and have been dismissive of her career ambitions. “Especially the older men,” Tiffany added. “A lot of older people in the field are used to just men being in the field and not women.”
Nonetheless, Alyssa plans to continue her training so she can master roadside vehicle repair, and she hopes to become a truck driver like her father. Tiffany also is college-bound, and both girls are focused on diesel engines – a discipline in which women are scarce and in demand.
As for the obstacles ahead, Alyssa is confident she can handle the challenge. “You have to stick up for yourself,” she said. “You’ve just got to come back at them and show them what you’ve got.”