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Graduating is a big deal for every Montana State University student, but it’s a special achievement for women in the male-dominated field of electrical engineering who are older than typical college students and have successfully juggled classes, part-time jobs and motherhood.

“It was hard going to school with little kids,” said Amber Geer, 34, mother of two little boys, 5-year-old Aaden and 2-year-old Rowan.

Many days she’d drive 60 miles round trip from her Logan home to daycare in Three Forks, then to MSU and back again. After school, she’d play with her boys until 9 p.m., study until 2 a.m., wake up at 6 a.m. and start all over again.

“For a long time I got four hours sleep,” Geer said. “I love my boys, they are two very amazing little kids. I take care of them first.”

Graduating with her today will be fellow electrical engineering student and best friend Heather Giacomo, 42, the mother of two boys, Tommy, 14, and Tyler, 11.

“People mix us up all the time,” Giacomo said.

“We’re close in age, we’re always together, and we’re both hilarious,” Geer said. “And we’re both moms.”

“We work, and we have kids, and we have classes,” Giacomo said. “People would say, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’”

She joked that she doesn’t know how the 20-something guys in her engineering classes do it all — going to bars, trying to find girlfriends, dealing with hormones and wondering what they’re going to do with their lives.

Geer said it wouldn’t have been possible for her to make it through school without help from her partner, Josh Sowa, a carpenter, and from her mother, friends, neighbor and lots of understanding MSU instructors. “I’m very thankful,” she said.

The stereotype of engineers in general and electrical engineers in particular is that they’re “geeky boys,” said Rob Maher, head of the electrical and computer engineering department.

Out of 43 electrical engineering students graduating Saturday, just four are female. That’s not quite 10 percent — which is low even by College of Engineering standards.

The college reported last fall that of its record 3,611 engineering students, 631 or 17 percent were women. That also was a new record for MSU, an increase of about 100 women students in one year.

Of the electrical engineering grads, just two are mothers, Maher said. “To have them in our family is really neat.”

Return to Learn

A third woman graduating in electrical engineering today is Reva Wall, 45. Wall isn’t a mom, but she also returned to college after a long absence. She quit MSU 20 years ago, just a few credits shy of graduating.

“I’m pretty excited,” Wall said of graduating. “I’m overjoyed to be finishing. It was hard work.”

Wall, a Belgrade High graduate, enrolled at MSU in electrical engineering years ago because she was good at math. But she quit after four years because of personal challenges and the realization she didn’t want to move to an engineering center like Seattle. She wanted to live in the woods.

Near the Canadian border in Eureka, she and her husband Rob Reynolds, a teacher, raised a straw-built, timber-frame home and a big garden. She worked at construction, bartending and bookkeeping.

Yet it bothered her that she hadn’t finished her MSU degree. So last year, despite feeling scared, she approached Maher to ask if it would be possible.

“I thought it was 10 years too late,” Wall said. She wasn’t sure that MSU would let her or that she could actually do it.

Maher calculated that she only needed one year of classes to finish. Wall said she had to work a little harder to freshen her skills, and her first test “almost gave me a heart attack.” But she passed, studied hard and made it.

MSU’s Return to Learn program, created to encourage students like Wall to return and finish their degrees, gave her a scholarship and help with study skills and job-hunting.

She said that made her feel the university cared. Twenty years before, she felt that when she left, no one cared why she was walking out just before finishing her degree.

One difference between men and women students, Wall said, seems to be that “women are not as cocky.” Men, whether they know how to do something or not, will act like they do, she said, but “girls act like we’re not quite qualified, so we don’t try.”

Walls said she feels the engineering degree will give her more options as she considers what to do with the next 20 years of her life.

“I know we can do it,” she said of women in engineering. “I think it’s really cool we can all come back and do this. There’s nothing holding us back.”

Benefits of motherhood

Being one of the few women and fewer moms in an engineering class can actually have advantages.

“Every professor knows my name,” Giacomo said. That wasn’t true 20 years ago, when she earned her first bachelor’s degree, in history at Cal State University Sacramento.

Once she decided to seek a degree in engineering, the family took a road trip to visit colleges around the West and fell in love with Bozeman, so she applied to MSU.

“I found all the men here — students and professors — to be extremely supportive. If anything, I felt really included,” Giacomo said. “I haven’t felt discriminated against because of age or gender.”

Being a student has one benefit for her as a mom, she said. Her sons see how hard she studies and it shows them that they need to study hard.

Both Giacomo and Geer worked part-time jobs during school — Giacomo at Ross Dress for Less and as a teaching assistant, Geer as an intern at the talc plant in Three Forks.

A big obstacle for Geer was undiagnosed attention-deficit disorder. A fellow talc plant intern recognized her symptoms and urged her to see a doctor, who diagnosed ADD and prescribed medication. That has “made a huge difference,” she said. Now, “I can read, learn and retain. Before it was hit or miss.”

After graduation, Giacomo and her family are moving to the Boise, Idaho, area, where she has been offered a job with an architectural engineering firm designing electrical systems for buildings, starting around $50,000. Her husband, Keith, an electrician, was able to transfer his job there, and the family can afford a much bigger home than in Bozeman.

“I think for engineering,” Giacomo said, “MSU can’t be beat.”

Geer joined the Army days after graduating from Manhattan High School, and originally just was aiming to become an electrician, but never got called on the apprentice waiting list. She decided to enroll at MSU after she got fired from a job the same week she found out she was pregnant. She realized she needed to get serious.

Geer is pretty feisty. Still, she gets teary when she thinks about missing her best friend, who helped her survive college.

“It solidified what we’re learning when we argued about it,” Geer said.

“We argue like sisters,” Giacomo said and laughed.

Geer said she plans to keep working at the talc plant this summer and then — she’s studying the LSAT and thinking about law school.

“I love to learn,” she said. “I’m a really passionate person. When I get started on something there’s not stopping me. I want to keep going. I want to make a difference.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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