Doris Atalim Kao ‘15 left her native country, Togo, when she was 16 years old to come to the United States with her parents back in 2013. A high school graduate at the time, she spoke mainly French—though she had taken English lessons at school. The first thing she did was enroll in Montgomery College’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program, which offers courses for students whose first language is not English. She is now a hardware engineer at a Fortune 500 company, Northrop Grumman, and would like to help other women succeed in the STEM field.
Her academic and professional path have required hard work: sleepless nights, being in the library past midnight. She knew she wanted to be an engineer because her uncle was and she looked up to him. After finishing the ESL program, Kao started taking math classes, and as she learned more about the different fields, she chose to go the route of electrical engineering.
A professor at MC, Lan Xiang, played an important role for her during that time. “She was really inspiring to me because there were not a lot of women professors and she was one of the best. She would give you career advice and talk about what was going on in the field,” Kao recalled. She ended up taking four programming and circuit classes with Xiang at the Rockville Campus.
After graduating from the College in the fall of 2015 with an Associate of Science in electrical engineering, she transferred to the University of Maryland College Park and got her Bachelor of Science. Her adjustment to the four-year school was difficult at first, but Kao and other former MC students supported each other and formed study groups. “The first semester is usually the toughest,” Kao said. “I decided to stick to it and I’m glad I did because it got better.”
That first summer, she got an internship at a nonprofit. It was unpaid but it was beneficial because she was able to practice software development and she gained experience. After practicing interviews, going to career fairs, and honing her resume, she was able to get another internship, this time at Eaton, a multinational power management company. “I learned a lot from them. I did software and hardware development and I got to do some PCB (printed circuit board) designs,” she said. “That’s how I realized I really wanted to do board designs and focus on the hardware side.”
No matter how hard it gets along the way, just stick to it. If you need motivation, find people who can motivate you
With more experience, only one semester left, and a clear idea of what she wanted to focus on, Kao sought out specific companies to find a job doing what she liked when she graduated in December of 2017. She just had her first anniversary at the Baltimore office of Northrop Grumman, one of the biggest companies in the aerospace and defense industry worldwide.
Kao finds the work interesting and meaningful, but she also finds their rotational program helpful. New hires fresh out of college can work with three different groups during their first three years in the company so they can get their feet wet, learn more, and find a good fit. She plans to start a master’s in systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University in the summer, but one of her long-term plans is to go into upper management.
Kao is passionate about encouraging women to go into the STEM field. Professors supported her, as did her family. Many female peers who took classes with her dropped out. “No matter how hard it gets along the way, just stick to it. If you need motivation, find people who can motivate you,” Kao said. She plays that role in her Togolese circle and talks to younger girls about considering engineering: “That way we can take over the world.”