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It was no surprise that Crimson writers embraced Chelsey Simmons S.B. ’06, a confident, smart, fun-loving young woman who seasons her sentences with “y’all.”
Mollie H. Chen ’05 wrote about Simmons in her sophomore year (“The Gainesville native skips down the stairs from her second-floor room in Thayer in a white tube top, low-rise black pants that are pretending to be held up by a stone-studded chain belt, and white flip-flops …”) in an undercover piece meant to prove that, gasp, Harvard students also like the nightlife.
A second article, written by Parag Gupta ’08 three years later, revealed how Simmons equally relishes her role as an early riser, leading a 7:00 a.m. cardio-kickboxing class. Muriel Payan ‘08 covered the ES concentrator’s senior design project, a device for patients who undergo spinal fusion.
Yes, that’s the same Chelsey Simmons in all three articles. That she doesn’t fall squarely into any one category, from socialite to athlete to engineer, is fine by her. After all, she discovered that the one place she never intended to go was the perfect fit.
What led you to pursue engineering?
I’ve known I wanted to do engineering since I was about 10 years old and went to engineering camp. Honestly, as geeky as it may sound, I loved all of my engineering classes and took as many as possible. I was born an engineer!
Was getting into Harvard a lifelong goal from birth?
I didn't really want to go to Harvard. I applied to Harvard and MIT mostly just so I could say I got in (hoping that I would). I really wanted to go to the University of Florida, in my hometown.
Once I visited [Harvard], I realized that the people here are so amazing. I know it gets said all the time, but the student body is really the best thing Harvard has to offer. It's a group of people you can't find anywhere else in the world, literally.
Does anyone in particular stand out?
I think playing poker with Rivers Cuomo, lead singer of the rock band Weezer, epitomized my Harvard experience. Where else can you take classes from O. J. Simpson’s lawyer and eat lunch in the dining hall with a rock star?
So even a sun-loving Gator fan from Florida can adapt to Cambridge culture?
I did feel like I fit in, and I think that's the beauty of Harvard. I think that misconceptions about the sort of students at Harvard do exist, but the most important thing is to recognize what those misconceptions might be and then break them down entirely. Once I'm in a classroom or boardroom, I can confidently show that I mean business, and people recognize that and respect that.
Was gender a nonissue, in your experience?
I think gender is an issue if you let it be. They often say that women suffer in the workplace because they're afraid to ask for what they want and that men aren't.
I think the classroom works the same way. If you want help after class, if you have a question during lecture, if you want a position in someone's lab, you have to go ask for it. It's sometimes hard to be outgoing and bold, but once you get comfortable with it, everyone treats you like an engineer.
I assume being treated “like an engineer” means being part of a research team?
Yes. Lab research can run the gamut from very team-oriented to very individual. Depending on the setting, you could be working hand in hand with other students and faculty, or you could see faculty rarely. If you're in their lab, you're helping them get their own work done, so they like having you around and are always willing to help. Your success is part and parcel of theirs.
Life in a lab sounds like the way you approach teaching kickboxing.
It’s so much easier to push yourself when there are other people in the room yelling at you to work harder, showing you new routines that work different muscles than you’re used to. The trick to fitting an exercise plan is to figure out what your weakness is and then figure out a way to beat it.
As that classic commercial goes, you seem to do more by 9:00 a.m. than most people do all day. What’s your advice to other young women want to do or have it all?
It's impossible to do or have it all, but you can easily do or have everything you personally want. I think with lots of high schoolers these days, parents are driving a lot of school and extracurricular involvement when the student should be.
When I brought home a bad grade, my parents came down on me for not studying hard enough. My boyfriend's teaching high school this year; when his kids take home a bad grade, the parents call and yell at him for making the test too hard!
Because my parents let me take ownership of my life, I was working toward my own goals, not someone else's.
As for your long-term goals or dreams …
My dream is to be dean of engineering at a research institution, with a great big loving family at home. I love teaching, and I think that as a dean I would be able to impact undergraduate curriculum as well as community teaching and outreach.
I can’t reiterate enough how important kids and family are. I think that’s another reason I want to be at an academic institution. Universities can act as extended families. [Simmons is attending Stanford, pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering.]