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Engineering Balance

As she juggled a STEM major and athleticism on the soccer field, Sarah Hernandez ’24 found there was more to the college experience than career preparation and high performance.

Words: Jenna Watson ’21

Portrait Sarah Hernandez

Sarah Hernandez ’24 has always thrived on a challenge. That’s why she chose to pursue a rigorous major, alongside a demanding sport, at a school far unlike any academic environment she had been in before.

After attending a Wheaton-sized public high school in Texas where she played soccer and took on rigorous academic coursework, Hernandez was fully prepared for the large public university experience. A place like Wheaton was not even on her radar, and she wasn’t planning to continue playing soccer in college, despite being invested in the sport since she was three years old. But a family friend connected her to the Wheaton soccer coach, and purely out of courtesy and with encouragement from her mom, Hernandez decided to consider Wheaton. Eventually, she visited. “I felt like God was telling me this was where I needed to be,” she recalled.

As it turns out, the dual degree nature of Wheaton’s engineering program allows her to experience a taste of the larger university life, too. Now that Hernandez has completed her three years of Wheaton liberal arts, she will start her two years of coursework at Illinois Institute of Technology this fall. Her class sizes will be going from as little as three students to as many as 50. So she’s getting her wish for a bigger school, too.

But more significantly, the Wheaton has opened doors for Hernandez to study more than just engineering. “I thought the engineering program here was cool because you get your liberal arts degree, and you get your engineering degree,” she said. “If I had gone to another school, I was going to be doing two different majors.”

Although Hernandez loves STEM and knew she wanted to pursue the field early on, she also enjoys having a more balanced course load so that “it wasn’t just math and numbers all the time.” She has appreciated her liberal arts classes such as anthropology, but also the way even some engineering classes incorporate both sides of the brain. Her engineering ethics class, for example, explored the overlap between the humanities and the technical side of STEM. “That class was really about ethical choices and different societal issues that we have, and how engineering can help them,” she explained.

That isn’t to say that Hernandez’s time at Wheaton has all been a walk in the park. Hernandez has had to juggle a rigorous major with playing on the Wheaton Women’s Soccer team, alongside major hip injuries that left her frustrated on the bench. With countless late nights staying up to complete assignments after hours of practice, it wasn’t always easy to find balance.

While Hernandez doesn’t minimize these difficulties, she acknowledges that some of these frustrations have pushed her to recognize the limits of academic and athletic accomplishments. When the pandemic  hit during her freshman year and she returned home to Houston, experiencing yet another loss of control in addition to her hip injuries, it gave her the time and space to reevaluate her life purpose. “I came to the realization that I need to find my identity not in soccer, not in school, not in all these things,” she said. “COVID put me in a setting where I had to focus on my relationship with God.”

This has become one of the most meaningful lessons for Hernandez throughout her three years at Wheaton—one she hopes to carry with her into the next chapter of her academic journey. She remembers a chapel talk in which the speaker used the analogy that when you hold things tightly with a closed fist, God sometimes has to pry them from you.

“Whenever I try to make my own path and steer my own way, it tends to go really poorly for me. And it’s kind of cliche, but when I just let go and let God, I’ve never been through something that hasn’t worked out,” she concluded, holding out her open palms in a posture of surrender.

Future undergraduates will have the opportunity to earn a B.S. in General Engineering solely from Wheaton College.