Name: Alexa Murray
Hometown: Greenwich, Conn.
Major: Systems Engineering major, Mathematics and Engineering Entrepreneurship minor
Activities: Captain of the varsity field hockey team, captain of the women's Alpine ski team, Human Resources Director for Kappa Alpha Theta, Advancing Women in Engineering Student Advisory Board
34th Street: What was it like growing up in Connecticut and how did your experiences lead you to Penn?
Alexa Murray: Growing up in Greenwich was great. I went to Greenwich Academy which is an all–girls school from pre–K to eighth grade. Then I went away to boarding school for three years at Deerfield in Massachusetts, which was beautiful and an amazing learning and growing experience, but I realized that the vision they saw for me and the vision I saw for myself was a little different, so I ended up coming back to GA, repeated my junior year and graduated from there. Coming back and doing the extra year gave me an extra year to both get higher up in math and science courses, which allowed me to apply to engineering schools, and also gave me an extra year for recruiting so I ended up getting recruited to Penn the spring of my second junior year.
Street: What role has field hockey played in your life and why did you decide to play it in college?
AM: Field hockey, lacrosse, and squash are the three big sports at GA. When we had to pick sports in the seventh grade, I wanted to do volleyball, but the coaches were like, "No, you have to play field hockey. You can hit the ball really hard, you're playing field hockey." And then when I went to boarding school, I actually ended up making the varsity team my freshman year. I didn't realize I wanted to play in college until a little bit later, and so I went to my coach. She kind of was like, "Oh well I don't think that's really in the cards for you.” I went to the major tournaments that you go to, and I actually went up to Cornell. They were done with their class for that year, but they were interested in me for the class below. Literally on that car ride back from Cornell I wrote my essay to apply back to GA, because I was like, "Okay I have a shot, I just need this extra time." I think coming back to that was a really good grounding experience, especially after the experience I had at boarding school, which was great, but I think people just didn't believe in me in the way that I believed in myself, which I definitely got when I came back. And then just ended up having interest from Penn and learned more about the school. My dad came here for his MBA, so I knew about it vaguely, but he didn't love it and so he was like, "Don't go to Penn, don't go to Penn." But it's the perfect combination. I wanted to do a little bit of business, but I'm really interested in science, so it’s a good place to merge the two, and the fact that I could get a supported spot was huge. I think it's been a huge challenge—it's a lot—but I have really enjoyed it.
Street: How has the varsity field hockey team impacted your Penn experience?
AM: I actually was asked this question yesterday for a promotional thing and I couldn't think of an answer, but I thought of it last night, so I'm glad I can share it today. Obviously the wins are great, the team bonding moments are great, but I think one of the highlights was when I won an award from the engineering school last year. It was the Jaros Baum and Bolles Award for Advancing Women in Engineering. The whole team came after practice in their pinnies to the awards ceremony to cheer me on. Everyone else there had their parents and friends, but when I went up to get my award, it was just this huge roar. The dean was like "You have quite a crew," and I was like "Yeah–that's my team." It's really special to have that supportive of a group, and that moment in particular really embodied the way that being on a team here really creates this community.
Street: What is it like to be the captain of the team?
I'm in a bit of an unusual spot. I'm not one of the top players on the team. It's very easy for teams to fall into the trap of the best player is therefore the best leader. I'm very fortunate that my teammates saw something in me. It's been a really great learning and growing experience for me as well. I've always been very interested in leadership and management, so I've done a lot of trainings, conferences, et cetera. And being able to apply the principles in a real setting and seeing how they work has been really great. Also just getting the chance to make an impact on something that has made such a huge impact on me has been a really great experience. Everyday I wake up and I go, "Oh my God I’m the captain. Today I'm going to lead the warm up, today I'm going to lead the team out to the game, or today I'm going to give the pregame speech." And of course there's a lot of administrative stuff that comes with that, but literally every day I wake up and it's like I just got the news that minute. One of my big initiatives for field hockey this year was to grow the connection within the team. We started a meme group, we started a Snapchat group, and we now have the Penn Field Hockey Club Finer Things Club, where we go out to dinner every week at a different restaurant in Philly. The rules are no talking about field hockey, school or jobs. It's just a good way to get off campus, and get to know each other on a deeper level because it's very easy to fall into the web of "How did you think that drill went?" or "How are your exams going?" and not really get to know anyone. If people walk away from this season A) having enjoyed being on the team and also B) feeling as they were part of a really close team that would make me very happy.
Street: Why did you decide to pursue systems engineering?
AM: I got interested in science probably all the way back in 5th grade, mostly because my science teacher was really nice and my English teacher I didn't get along very well with. I also wasn't a very good writer, so English was always very hard, and science was always really fun. I got into robotics in middle school, and the teacher we had for that team was a huge mentor for me. We actually ended up our first year going to the World Championships. They call it the Olympics of the Mind, but essentially you would build these Lego robots, and then you would drag–and–drop coding. You do all these little challenges, and each challenge is worth a certain number of points. You compete head to head with other teams, and based on how you do, you get ranked. When I went away to boarding school, I started a team there, and got it off the ground. I think it still exists, which was really cool. But we didn’t have a faculty advisor, because no one wanted to help us on this project, so we were kind of going it alone as freshmen. When I came back [to GA], there was a very established team. They had their own Makerspace, their own tools and everything, so I continued. I was also basically out of courses, because I had taken every AP you could take in my first few years, so I ended up picking up electives. There was a teacher teaching interdisciplinary engineering and art courses. You would write some code and it would program a robot to draw a design. We designed clocks and also programmed them and wired them. So seeing that engineering could be aesthetically pleasing was also really interesting. I came in freshman year intending to do mechanical engineering. But while I like robotics, I didn't want to go work in the industry. I didn't like the courses and I didn't love my options after graduation, so I switched to systems because I thought it was more flexible. You’re able to mold it into what you want to do, and that's definitely been the case.
Street: How have you found your experience and community as a woman in engineering?
AM: This is where my background going to an all–girls school really helped. It literally wasn't until I got to my boarding school—which was coed—that I had a second thought about asking a question. Having such a strong foundation and being able to come back and graduate with that strong foundation, I came in fairly confident that I would be able to do it, and that my gender wouldn't be the thing that would be holding me back from becoming an engineer. I'm very fortunate in that systems is either pretty even or almost female–dominated, and there is a good group of women in my year, so I kind of had a group to work with to work on my problem sets. But at board meetings, people will share experiences, and there definitely still are microaggressions, overt aggression, and discriminatory comments from students, teachers, and TAs across the board. There still is a lot of work to be done in terms of making women feel comfortable in the engineering space, and setting them up to succeed if they're coming from a place of disadvantage. It's the kind of thing where you show up and you're working on a group project and you kind of get siloed into the "Oh you'll take notes." I worked as a developer the past few years, and sometimes people assume that you're the least technical person. But there is no set profile of what that looks like. It starts all the way from what kind of toys your parents give you. Is your brother getting the blocks and you're getting the dolls? Or are you both getting blocks and are you both getting dolls? It starts way back, so increasing awareness and increasing understanding and how we can strengthen the pipeline and how we can begin to tackle both the conscious and unconscious biases are huge areas that we’re working on. On the AWE [Advancing Women in Engineering] Board, I'm the Freshman Transition Committee lead, so I'm in charge of planning events for freshmen coming in. We plan events centered on a theme like preparing for your first midterm and preparing for Advance Registration, or we partner with a campus partner so we did an event with CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] two nights ago. We're doing one with Career Services later, just to kind of make freshmen more aware of the resources available. But the events aren't just about the information conveyed. It's also about getting groups of women in the same room, and having them meet each other, so that when they're in the huge lecture halls they have a familiar face and they're able to say "Hey, I know you. I had this question—can you help?"
Street: Why did you decide to join the Alpine ski team?
AM: My dad grew up ski racing and went to a ski academy. He wanted to go to the Olympics and was on that track but his parents pulled him out. He went to the same boarding school that I went to, and he went on to Dartmouth and skied at Dartmouth. So my siblings and I grew up racing. Racing was a huge part of my life growing up, and I had skied at boarding school, but when I came to Penn I was very focused on field hockey freshman year. After freshman year, I worked for Girls Who Code in California, and one of my code teachers went to Carnegie Mellon. She was on the ski team there, and was just raving about her experience. So I signed up for ski team, and I went on the winter training trip and it was so fun. I didn't know anyone, got off the plane, and was like "Here I am—hope these people are nice." I had forgotten how much I had missed it. After the winter training trip over break, it’s the first five weekends of the spring semester. I went every weekend, got back into racing, and it was really cool because as I remembered how to ski again, I would get better and better results. As fun as field hockey is, it’s still definitely a job, and this was purely something I was doing for fun, because it was something I was passionate about. Last year I was the Media and Merch Chair, and I got very into designing the apparel, which got me more involved in the team overall. My roommate and I both grew up racing, and so we both ran for captain of the women's team. We’re the co–captains which is really cool.
Street: What are you hoping to do when you graduate Penn?
AM: After school I will be working in New York as a product manager for Goldman Sachs on their Marquee platform, basically handling most likely API externalization for some data sets that we offer to institutional clients. It's kind of perfect for me. I get to do more management and leadership that I'm really interested in, but also staying somewhat more technical and fairly knowledgeable. And I’ve worked there for two years so I think I know the lay of the land, hopefully.
Street: Favorite class at Penn?
AM: EAS 595 Foundations of Leadership taught by [Professor Dwight] Jaggard. Great class. I am a little biased because I am the TA, but the class that most changed my life? That class, hands down.
Street: What is your drink order?
AM: I used to drink a lot of English Breakfast tea. I'm getting into matcha. From Starbucks it's an iced green tea, no sugar.
Street: What is your favorite thing to do when you're home for break?
AM: Definitely go to Costco with my mom. I love Costco.
Street: What’s the weirdest thing that happened to you this past week?
AM: I got a text that we were running the Beep Test, which is unusual because that's our big run test. I had to take an exam. So I took the exam, and was so full of rage but I got 11 levels higher than I've ever gotten before on the Beep Test. That was pretty sick, but never have to do that again.
Street: Wardrobe staple?
Either leggings or sneakers. It’s so dorky, but if I could wear running shoes everywhere I totally would. They’re so much more comfortable than any type of shoe.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn…
AM: Those who meal prep and those who don't.