Matea Zec was a rising high school senior when she signed up for an online class offered by “Girls Who Code,” a nonprofit that teaches teenage girls basic coding skills in a bid to close the gender gap in computer science. According to the World Bank, women make up less than a third of the global workforce in science and engineering fields.
“Originally, I’d wanted to go into computer science because I know it’s a growing industry, especially with AI and things like that. But during the class, I realized that I really wanted to build something physical — and not just sit in front of a computer. I’d love to design airplanes or cars. There’s just something about seeing a product in front of me that’s very cool to me.”
Today Matea is a sophomore at Rock Valley College — a community college that’s a mere five minutes from her childhood home — where she’s studying for an associate’s degree in engineering science. Next fall, she plans to transfer to Northern Illinois University to complete a BS in the same field.
College by the Numbers
Although Matea had initially planned to attend a four-year school for her entire college career, she ran the numbers and realized she’d accrue a debt of tens of thousands of dollars by the time she graduated, even with scholarships. Then her dad, who works as a quality control auditor at Rochelle Foods, told her about the Hormel Foods Inspired Pathways scholarships, which pay community college tuition for the children of company employees.
Now, instead of going into the red, Matea is actually growing her bank account. In addition to taking a full course load at Rock Valley, she works evenings in the food services department of the local hospital, planning healthy menus for patients. And to further economize, she lives at home for free.
It’s just perfect for me in every way.Hormel Inspired Pathways recipient Matea Zec on her college journey
The experience wasn’t without hiccups, however. Rock Valley College mistakenly sent Matea a tuition bill and then placed a hold on her registration, which barred her from signing up for classes. Inspired Pathways Director Nate Lockett stepped in to sort out the problem with the registrar’s office and get Matea into her preferred classes.
Matea’s studies have ranged from calculus to chemistry to differential equations, but her favorite so far has been “Introduction to Engineering,” which explores “different engineering disciplines, the role of the engineer in society, the engineering approach to problem solving and the engineering design process.” In the lab portion of the class, students reverse-engineer products to puzzle out how they were designed.
One advantage of studying at a community college, Matea says, is the diversity of the student body: Some of her classmates are seasoned engineers who are returning for a second degree or to update their skill sets. “Just hearing about their experience in the field is super awesome,” she says.
Engineering salaries are pretty awesome too, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: the median engineering salary is $84,000 – almost double the annual wage for all other occupations.
Matea’s dream job lies at the intersection of clean energy and cool design. “Honestly, if Tesla was to offer me a job, I would immediately take it,” she says with a laugh. “But, you know, we’ll see where things go.”