Rebecca Cortez majored in mechanical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis before earning a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in materials science and engineering. Now a professor in the mechanical engineering department at Union College, Rebecca also serves as director of engineering and as a faculty trustee. She proudly supports students throughout their academic careers and is currently co-mentoring a group of National Science Foundation supported STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) undergraduates.
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your career or volunteer activities?
Each student brings their unique experiences with them to Union. Being able to share my experiences and expertise with them in a meaningful way can be challenging. It’s rewarding to hear from students – both still on campus and those who have graduated. I enjoy hearing how an experience they had in my classroom or lab, or with a research project, has positively impacted them. I also am appreciative that my peers at Union have allowed me to represent them and the College, both internally and to external groups.
Who inspired and/or inspires you, professionally and personally?
I am fortunate to have received support and encouragement to explore my academic interests from family members and friends throughout my life. While both an undergraduate and graduate student, two faculty members were instrumental in guiding me to the place where I am now. Professor Leonard Gulbransen and Professor Morris Fine both challenged and supported me while I learned about materials science. I was honored when Professor Fine received an honorary Union degree in 2014. Personally, I have been inspired by my parents, grandparents and children. My grandparents did not have opportunities to stay in school despite their interest in education. I have been fortunate to be able to pursue my academic interests and encourage others to do the same. At Union, we encourage students to be engaged in life-long learning. I look at my husband, Joe, and I think, “What a fantastic example of a life-long learner.” Beyond his academic and professional accomplishments, he continues to explore his interests in the areas of music and aviation. It’s fun to be around someone like that.
What advice would you offer today’s women students, not just at Union, but across the country?
Seek peers and mentors who can share experiences with you. It is important to have individuals who you can contact and ask questions. Work on activities to help you build confidence in yourself and don’t hesitate to ask for help from your friends and mentors.
What was your most formative experience at Union?
I have received guidance and assistance from my faculty colleagues in the mechanical engineering department and across campus. I value and appreciate their time and suggestions as I continue to grow as a teacher-scholar.