Carnegie Mellon University

Nika Finkelsteyn headshot

June 28, 2021

CEE Spotlight: Nika Finkelsteyn

By CEE DEI Committee

What drew you to Civil and Environmental Engineering?

My desire to protect the environment and an interest in renewable energy.

How did/does your identity influence your decision to pursue engineering/STEM?

Being someone that has experienced what it is like to not have their opinion respected combined with the knowledge that women are often undermined or under-credited in professional contexts, I wanted to make sure I had an academic background that ensured others would be more inclined to take me seriously. I didn't want my identity as a sociable and animated woman to provide the opportunity for others to impede my professional success and I figured that having a "respectable" degree, like in engineering, would aid me in that.

I don't like the general conception that STEM majors are more important or admirable, but unfortunately it didn't and doesn't seem like its current assignment as being more prestigious than humanities-oriented degrees is changing any time soon.

How did your lens on diversity, equity and inclusion take shape both as you grew up and as you entered adulthood and academia?

I've been very fortunate to form relationships with many of the people I've met in my life, and that many compassionate human beings cared enough about me to take time to patiently explain why certain opinions or ideas are misleading and problematic. Since coming to college, my perspective has come to consider more narratives, anecdotes, and experiences, especially in the form of methodical archival and scientific studies of how these affect every facet of the world we live in, as opposed to a loose collection of personal stories. It's been elucidating to learn about others' lives, especially those who don't look like me.

In some ways, it's been disheartening to learn about all the ways different groups of people have been disenfranchised systemically and systematically, but in other ways I'm optimistic about our prospects of turning the tides. Opening up the dialogue and having the conversation is so important, and this has only become clearer to me over the last five years.

What positive experiences have you had at CMU that you would hope others would have?

I've spent significant time with Hillel throughout my time at CMU, including going on a Birthright trip and staying in Israel afterwards for an internship the summer after my first year. I occasionally have gone to Shabbat dinners since and always have felt my presence was welcomed and valued, which is really heartwarming since I did not feel in touch with my Jewish heritage at all prior to coming to college. 

Besides that, I've loved some of the guests that AB Tech has hosted in the past. I saw performances by Eric Andre and Vermin Supreme in the CUC (I like to brag about that to my non-CMU friends). I once stayed up until 2AM in December in 24°F weather to paint the Fence with help from a couple friends for a provocative final project. The Pancake Breakfast that CEE hosts has always been a favorite of mine, even when virtual (I still use Costa's crepe recipe). I especially hope the latter gets to come around soon (maybe the end of this semester?!) so that other students can enjoy it as much as I have!

In your position as an undergraduate student, how do you advocate for inclusion?

As a white student, I've failed to recognize issues on my own that others, especially POC, have seen or directly had to deal with at CMU. Given this, my main way of advocating for inclusion is not only listening to but making space for people who may not be as listened to. Always practice compassion and be careful with how your perspective affects the way you interpret others' stories-- everything is subjective.

Do you have any advice for incoming (students, faculty, staff)?

Get to know the department! It took me some time to get acclimated but I've seldom felt such a strong sense of community.