Leverage your Strengths to Become the Best Version of You
We sat in an early-morning calculus class at Smith College in Massachusetts. I’d forgotten my eraser in the rush to make it to class. She washed dishes in Lamont house as her first campus job, and I did the same. Through the dish-washing experience, we got acquainted. People called her Kim, others affectionately called her Kimmie. I did the latter. “Kimmie, Kimmie,” I whispered as I tapped her on the shoulder, trying to get her attention. “Yes, Lucy,” she said as she turned towards me. “May I have your rubber?” I asked. “Lucy, what? Rubber!” she exclaimed, not understanding what I’d said. “Yes, rubber. I forgot mine at my house, and I need to erase something,” I said as I made hand gestures. Kimmie gave me her eraser and we became friends. For the next few years, almost every time she met me she screamed, “Rubber!” Yes, the British call an eraser a rubber, a traffic light a robot, an elevator a lift, cookies biscuits, and it was not always easy to transition to life in the United States coming from Zimbabwe—a former British colony. During my first days, I said things that many people didn’t immediately understand. I could have lost my confidence and felt like I didn’t belong, but I never let that happen.
I hail from the dusty streets of Mucheke, Masvingo, Zimbabwe, where babies are carried on one’s back, and women can breastfeed on the bus and no one frowns about it. I come from a place where candlelit dinners aren’t something to be excited about, but rather a way of life. Why am I saying all these things? According to my background, and the statistics of people who look like me, I’m not expected to have the credentials that I have. I am a face you don’t often come across in electrical and computer engineering. I’m a black, female engineer, and how did I do it? Well, my innate strengths have carried me through all the storms.
In order to get a better understanding of what my strengths are, I attended the “Leveraging Your Strengths” workshop sponsored by The Graduate School’s Professional Development Series. In that workshop we used the CliftonStrengths assessment to identify our strengths, and that experience gave me the language that I needed to articulate my strengths and identify how they’ve helped me succeed.
My positivity is what enabled me to embrace Kimmie as a friend instead of feeling embarrassed each time she saw me and exclaimed, “Rubber!” at the top of her lungs, even when other people were around. I was able to understand that the platform she was standing on was love, though that was never explicitly said. I carry that same positivity into other areas of my life. Positivity, though, is not naivety. Rather, it is the choice to believe that there is still a lot of good in the world, and good things can come even out of embarrassing experiences.
I’m also a maximizer, I polish the pearl until it shines. I love looking at what I have, and take full advantage of that instead of wailing about what I do not have. Leveraging my strengths allows me to be the achiever that I am. As an achiever, accomplishing my goals gives me great satisfaction. I am rarely content with complacency. I love keeping busy, and striving for more. I also love learning new things, but as an engineer, I have to be strategic about the battles that I choose to fight. There are lots of exciting things to learn, but at the end of the day, it matters if I’m actually good at something at a level that others aren’t. As I continue to grow, I realize that doors open wide for individuals who are skilled in their work, and gaining any skill requires a strategy. That I’m innately strategic makes it easier for me to hone my skills.
As society continues to embrace diversity, it’s become vitally important to learn about cultures that are different from our own. Understanding what is important to the people you work with or go to school with is essential. I’ll never forget one incident from college. We sat in one of our dining halls having lunch, and one of the other girls wanted us to be quiet for some reason. “Shhhh!” I muttered to the girl next to me, who happened to be from a culture different from mine. She fumed, deeply offended. I didn’t understand why it seemed she was blowing things out of proportion. Later on, I reached out to her for a conversation and gained understanding on why she had reacted the way she reacted. I learned that what I had said was very offensive in her culture. I hadn’t known anything about her culture, so I was taken aback when she reacted the way she did, but now that I understood, I was thankful that she’d taken the time to explain, and I apologized for offending her.
That experience opened my eyes to the new world we all live in, a world where embracing other cultures and learning the intricacies of what makes people who they are have become important aspects of our lives. My innate love for learning pays off in times like these. As I continue to learn about other cultures, it’s easier for me to work in diverse teams—something that I can’t avoid as an engineer. My journey is atypical, but the CliftonStrengths assessment has helped me understand how strategically maximizing my strengths has allowed me to remain positive in both dry and stormy seasons of life. Achieving my dreams is no longer scary, and I welcome each new day with positivity and grace. Life has been good to me so far, and I’m sure that by using my strengths I’ll continue to find good days ahead.
Ph.D. student, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Lucy Chikwetu is an electrical and computer engineering student from Zimbabwe pursuing a doctorate with a research focus on computer architecture.