Whitney Levine '10 'I Can Do Hard Things'

Whitney Levine

Soaring Together: I Can Do Hard Things - Whitney Levine ’10

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Story by

Laura Turner

I knew going into college that I was interested in engineering, but I had no clue what discipline I wanted to pursue. I always loved math and science, and a teacher in high school had mentioned that engineering might be a good application of those skills, so I was specifically looking at engineering schools to attend. Lehigh has a gorgeous campus but also a fantastic and highly regarded engineering program.

My academic experience was pretty uneventful, but in a good way. It prepared me for the things I would need to find a professional career, and it helped me suss out the different engineering disciplines. All of the first-year engineering students had to take a computer science course. I loved it, I was good at it, and it had practical applications. I just was, oh, this is what I’ve been looking for. After taking that class, I officially declared computer science as my major. I felt ultimately that when I left Lehigh, I was prepared to be a professional software engineer. I think I was the only woman from my year who graduated with a B.S. in computer science.

When I think about my Lehigh experience, it was the athletics and the social and the extracurriculars that made the experience stand out. I was a little bit ambushed by the girls in M&M [McClintic-Marshall House] my first year. A lot of the rowing team lived in my dorm. [Crew members] saw me in the hallway and convinced me to try out. I did, and it was great, and I ended up doing it all four years. I was a coxswain, who is generally someone small and petite.

It was hard to balance races and academics and practices. But my best friends, even today, are from the rowing team, and I met my husband [David Highhill ’06 ’08G] on the rowing team, so I would never take back that experience. It was just fun to compete.

Practice would start at 5 a.m. on the Lehigh River in Allentown. We would practice till 7 or 7:30 and try to be back on campus by 8 a.m. That was hard, especially with also trying to do schoolwork. [It taught me] that I can do hard things and balance a lot at once, although after Lehigh I kind of vowed to never wake up that early again. Being out on the water on warm days or once the sun came up was pretty magical. When everything clicks and the boat feels good and everyone sort of has a rhythm going, you’re, oh, this is why I do this.

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Coxswain Whitney Levine ’10, right, with rower Anna Kobayashi during Levine’s time at Lehigh.

I joined the Lehigh chapter of the Society of Women Engineers [SWE] my first year. There were so few of us, at least comparatively, in the engineering school that it was just nice to have allies and people who understood my experiences or who could talk me through an experience. I really wanted both women at Lehigh and younger women to see engineering, and all the different engineering disciplines, as an option. That was a big thing for me. That was what got me so passionate about wanting to be involved in leadership.

Levine was president of SWE in her junior and senior years.

One of the big programs that SWE was doing was CHOICES [an engineering and science outreach program for middle-school girls]. I was really excited to get to help plan and connect with the schools. We worked pretty closely with the administrators and the engineering department and our advisors, but we went to the schools and met with the teachers and talked to them about different activities that we could do with the students, things they might find interesting. There were some events that SWE had done year after year and that we kind of inherited—egg drop contests, where you have to build a contraption and drop the egg off the top floor of a building and hope it doesn’t crack—but we added some new activities.

Lehigh was good at teaching problem-solving. At the time, or maybe when I first graduated, I wished I had these very specific skills to be good at my job. But technology and engineering are iterating so quickly. The specific languages and things that I was learning at Lehigh aren’t relevant anymore. If they had spent so much time just teaching me how to write in a specific language or solve a specific problem, that would have only helped for maybe a year or two. The most important part is: How do I think about problems, and how do I ask the questions I need to ask to be able to answer those problems, and how do I work with other people on solving these problems? My courses did a really good job on that.

The professor I think had the most personal impact on me was probably Sharon Kalafut. She was the advisor of SWE, so we worked together really closely, when I was president, just planning and generally coordinating events. She was also a computer science professor, and my junior year, she helped get me sponsored by the computer science department to attend the Grace Hopper conference, which is the largest conference in the U.S. for women in computing. That’s actually ultimately how I got my first internship and job.

"I wanted to be an example through my actions, where other students who were coming up [could say,] “Oh, she did it, I can do it.” I desperately wanted to succeed, because I felt, a little bit, if I failed or I stopped the track or I didn’t do well in my classes, that would look bad for all women doing computer science."

Also, I worked with [Computer Science and Engineering Professor] Dan Lopresti a lot. He was my advisor in my junior and senior year. We had talked a little bit about potential graduate school options, and he was helping me make connections at graduate schools, if that was something I was interested in. He was a good advocate.

I wanted to be an example through my actions, where other students who were coming up [could say,] “Oh, she did it, I can do it.” I desperately wanted to succeed, because I felt, a little bit, if I failed or I stopped the track or I didn’t do well in my classes, that would look bad for all women doing computer science. I definitely felt some responsibility to represent women being capable of doing this successfully.

Whitney Levine ’10 is a senior software engineer at Slack in New York City. She received her bachelor’s degree in computer science from Lehigh. Her husband, David Highhill, also graduated from Lehigh, earning a bachelor’s degree in 2006 and a master’s degree in 2008.

Story by

Laura Turner