Logo: University of Southern California

Rise of a leader-engineer

Shana Douglass turns obstacles into opportunities
By: Alya Rehman
November 02, 2016 —


Shana Douglass, front row, second from left, fights on with National Society of Black Engineers USC Chapter. Photo courtesy of Shana Douglass.

After three years of growing within the USC Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, Shana Douglass has taken the reins of spearheading the formation of a tight-knit and diverse community at USC Viterbi. From her leadership role as vice president of the National Society of Black Engineers USC chapter, to the many roles she played at her internships with Visa and Microsoft – Douglass is now a super-networker whose influence extends beyond the campus.

But she wasn’t always at the front of this progress. At one point, she was even tempted to switch fields. Believing that “there are no shortcuts to any place worth going,” Douglass turned the obstacles she experienced early on in her educational journey into opportunities.

Every engineer has an origin story and Douglass’s begins with someone taking notice.

“One of my dad’s coworkers, an officer in the Navy, introduced me to the Society of Women Engineers when I was in high school,” Douglass recalled. “I joined their outreach committee, planning STEM events for middle school girls.”

Although she was attending a performing arts school at the time, that experience changed her trajectory.

“It gave me strong female STEM mentors, exposed me to the infinite career opportunities as an engineer, and was the catalyst for me to begin studying engineering,” said Douglass.

Douglass entered USC with an eye set for technical design. Specifically, she envisioned combining engineering with her artistic side as a theater stage producer. However, her motivations were soon tested as she entered progressively difficult classes and tests of skill.

“It was tough.” Douglass said, “I felt so out of place, and I felt that people expected less of me. I really disconnected with the coursework and it really hurt my grades.”

Engineering is not an easy major, even for a driven student like Douglass. It requires time commitment both within and outside the curriculum. Forming communities of study and peer networks helps address many of the challenges felt by many students. Douglass did not let those obstacles dissuade her or erode her love for the profession. Instead, she made the iron hot by taking initiatives and forming partnerships to ensure academic success.

That support rested in one of the largest student organizations in the country: the National Society of Black Engineers, or NSBE. Their study groups, mixers, and conferences pulled Douglass back into the center lane, pushing her to seize every opportunity.

At her first NSBE conference, Douglass met multiple professionals within the black community who shaped her drive towards engaging with the diversity within the industry.

“It’s really important to get that visibility and to know I’m not the only one,” Douglass said.

At that conference, Douglass snagged an internship at Visa where she was exposed to the application of mechanical engineering in business, data modeling, and more.

That step into industry opened up a whole new perspective of engaging within the classroom. She set aside that linear drive towards technical design and decided to embrace, from then on, every part mechanical engineering had to offer.

“Learn how to communicate. Learn how to talk to others, because every opportunity I’ve gotten is through networking... and putting [myself] out there.” Douglass emphasized. “It’s really hard to sell yourself on paper.”

Shana Douglass during her internship at Microsoft. Photo courtesy of Shana Douglass.

The following summer, Douglass snagged another coveted internship, this time with Microsoft. Within the course of several months, she converged a Computer Science-dominated scene with work on hardware and business within the company. Microsoft even designated her a Microsoft Student Partner – a campus evangelist for the tech giant.

At the end of her internship, she returned to USC with an arsenal of knowledge that she was eager to share with her peers.

And not just with them. She reached outside of USC to share the technology and resources from Microsoft with children and youth in the Los Angeles community as vice president. Her goal: bring all types of people into the STEM fields and assure them that they are not alone, no matter who they are or where they come from.  

This budding leader-engineer already has her eye set on her legacy as a Trojan.

USC is where she met her challenges and found her opportunities.

Said Douglass, “Where you start is not always where your end up. At the end of the day, whatever I end up doing, I want people to remember how I made them feel. How I empowered, encouraged, and uplifted others.”