When Vanessa Pangbourne joined SHPE-USC her freshman year, she never could have seen herself eventually becoming president.
Pangbourne, who will graduate in May with a B.S. in chemical engineering, spent the majority of her life living in various Latin American countries. She moved to Vancouver, Canada, for the last two years of high school. By the time she came to USC, she missed the Spanish language and culture.
“Even though each of the countries I lived in was different, I missed the shared Latin American identity,” Pangbourne said. “When I came to USC, I was specifically looking for a group I could connect with in this way.”
SHPE, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, turned out to be the perfect fit. SHPE is a national organization that strives to uplift and empower the Hispanic community pursuing STEM-related careers by providing them with mentorship, support and leadership.
“I remember walking into the first meeting and hearing people speaking in Spanglish. I remember immediately thinking ‘This is my place,’” Pangbourne said.
Pangbourne was born in Chile, but because of her father’s job in the mining industry, her family moved around often. She lived in many countries in Latin America, including Peru and Colombia.
Pangbourne attended various international schools, so she was constantly surrounded by diversity and change that left her open-minded and adaptable.
“I was always a pretty nerdy kid; I loved school and was always very curious,” Pangbourne said. Her father was very mathematical and analytical, while her mother was creative and artistic. She grew up talking about math and science with her father, but she also loved to paint, do crafts, and sew dolls with the help of her mother.
“My parents are very different, and I’m kind of a blend of the two,” she said. Later in high school, she became interested in engineering, which she saw as a way to apply math and science in a more creative, and problem-solving way.
“My house was always loud and full of laughter and love. My mother loved when the house was full, and my grandparents and family were always visiting,” Pangbourne recalled. “So even though I lived in many different places, I always felt like I had a strong place to call home.”
Pangbourne’s childhood has led her to value both family and Latin American culture, which, in many ways, was something that USC SHPE was able to fulfill. “SHPE is a familia- we all uplift, support and love each other,” Pangbourne said. “It’s really powerful.”
Becoming a Leader
Pangbourne joined SHPE early on, and throughout her freshman year, Pangbourne attended general body meetings and study nights. By the end of the year, she ran for a director position in the membership program.
“Before I became a director on the membership committee, I was definitely more shy,” Pangbourne said. “Serving in a leadership position my sophomore year deeply immersed me in SHPE and led to me making some really close friendships within the club.”
The next year, Pangbourne ran for the vice president of public relations because she felt that SHPE needed to do a better job with recruitment. “I joined because I was specifically looking for a group like SHPE, but it wasn’t super publicized. I felt that if more students were aware of SHPE, we would have more members.”
Throughout her junior year, Pangbourne focused on publicizing SHPE. She made T-shirts and hats to spread the word around campus, and she also redesigned the weekly newsletter and the website design to increase involvement, promote events and overall increase awareness about SHPE.
Other members of SHPE strongly encouraged her to run for chapter president after her work as VP. “That was definitely something I never envisioned myself doing,” Pangbourne said. But with the support of her peers, Pangbourne ran and was elected chapter president for the 2018-2019 school year.
“I did not feel prepared to be president. But because I was in such a supportive environment, where the stakes weren’t too high, I got a safe space to try things and as a result, my leadership skills really grew,” Pangbourne said.
Pangbourne’s main goal as president was to continue to increase recruitment by spreading awareness about SHPE’s mission. She was responsible for planning out the year to maximize their overall goals and for overseeing SHPE’s executive boards and conferences. She coordinated events at involvement fairs to make SHPE as welcoming as possible and continued to improve the club’s social media presence.
Her efforts were a huge success. When Pangbourne was a freshman, she was one of only two first-year students who joined that year. This past school year, over 20 freshmen joined SHPE. “There has 100 percent been a huge increase in recruitment, and I’m so happy about that,” Pangbourne said.
“Vanessa has been an incredible person to work with,” said Ana Rescala, the vice president of SHPE-USC for the 2018-2019 school year. “She is humble, supportive, and dedicated to the success of her community. She not only is a great leader but also one of my closest friends and her familia at SHPE will miss her!”
A Promising Future
It was the beautiful weather, the rich culture and the strong engineering program that brought Pangbourne to L.A. to attend USC.
“I found a lot of engineering schools to have a very competitive culture, which I find counterintuitive to how team-oriented engineering is,” Pangbourne said. “That’s why I loved the collaborative, supportive culture within USC Viterbi.”
A recipient of the prestigious, full-tuition Trustee Scholarship at USC, Pangbourne thrived academically throughout her undergraduate years. From her freshman to her junior year, she worked in the nanofabrication lab of Wei Wu, an associate professor of electrical engineering at USC Viterbi. In the lab, she got to witness some of the most innovative new chemical engineering technologies. Her work in the lab influenced her to announce nanotechnology as the emphasis of her major.
“Because I was always adapting to new situations growing up, I gained the skill to look at problems from different angles, which I think has served me well as an engineer,” Pangbourne said.
Pangbourne plans to apply to universities where she can pursue her master’s degree upon graduating, which she hopes will help her to narrow down the specific career path she wants to pursue. As of now, she already has a few ideas.
“One application of engineering that really interests me is the sustainability of consumer goods,” Pangbourne said. A lot of the materials used to package items like soaps, foods and makeups are poorly sourced and not environmentally friendly. Pangbourne is interested in engineering more sustainable options for the packaging and production of these goods.
At the same time, Pangbourne is also considering a career involving leadership, like management consulting, or even starting her own company. “There’s no way I ever would have considered pursuing leadership if it hadn’t been for my work in SHPE,” Pangbourne said.