My 12-Year Odyssey from Fine Arts to Electrical Engineering

January 14, 2020
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By Randi Burley

Twelve years ago, I was a bright-eyed, freshman Undeclared-Engineering major at UCLA.  I grew up in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles and I was inspired by my aunt who is an African-American engineer.  She told me stories of the things she created and the challenges she faced.  I admired her strength, creativity, and can-do attitude towards any task she took on. I wanted to be an engineer too, and work towards the same things she did.

Unfortunately, I never got that engineering degree I so wanted.

I was struggling with my full-time course load, working 20+ hours a week to pay for housing and attending tutoring to catch up in math. All while acclimating to student life on campus. I was one of those students who had the passion and the talent needed to become an engineer. What I didn’t have was the support, time, training, or money, needed to become an engineer. This was incredibly disheartening -- it felt like my own education was out of my control.

I asked myself, how can my art make an impact in the world in a meaningful and positive way?  How can I utilize my work to support myself, my family, and my community even more?

With that difficult realization, I looked for another outlet to exercise my creative brain while providing hands-on work: fine arts.  I discovered that art has the ability to propel society forward.  I loved the idea that my work could change how people thought about the world and interacted with it.  Much like engineering, art requires a balance of aesthetics and analysis. Before I knew it, I was graduating; four years had flown by in an instant. I always told myself that engineering could wait, that I’d find the time do it. But life has a way of keeping you busy.

I took a job as a Project Director at UCLA’s Academic Supports Program (ASP) - a retention project targeting UCLA’s African-American students and providing them with peer counseling, mentorship, internships, and various skills-building workshops.  I took this job because I loved being a student and I wanted to help other students find their passion and succeed.  In some way, maybe I saw working with these students as a chance to right the wrong of my own missed opportunity.

Randi at her internship last summer with Solar Turbines in San Diego (PHOTO CREDIT: Randi Burley)

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the arts and I eventually threw myself wholeheartedly in that direction. By 2014, I was a small business owner with a gallery storefront and community space in LA. The space brought together local artists and musicians via performance, installation, and creation.  At the height of our success we hosted traveling artists who went on to become major cultural icons.

Through my work at ASP and my gallery, I developed a strong sense of commitment to my community. But I felt like I could be doing more. I asked myself, how can my art make an impact in the world in a meaningful and positive way?  How can I utilize my work to support myself, my family, and my community even more?

Around the same time, I was invited to attend the UCSB Media Arts and Technology program’s End of Year Show.  I met graduate students who were artists that ventured into engineering and engineers who turned to the arts. Here, art and science aren’t considered two separate fields but a marriage creating a whole new transdisciplinary medium. Suddenly, nearly ten years later, I felt like I was that bright-eyed freshman again. I remembered the promise I made to myself that I wouldn’t give up on engineering. I’d finally rediscovered that dormant passion inside myself and I researched furiously, seeking out people, institutions, and programs.

But how to pursue that dream? Soon, I came across the USC Institute of Creative Technologies - the team responsible for major engineering advancements such as bringing actors back to life on camera and enhancing mixed reality.  I realized that USC Viterbi was the answer to my question of how to pursue a career in STEAM.  It became my goal to get into USC Viterbi. But I had a lot to do to before I could get there.

First, I had to completely start all over as a freshman, for the second time, in my late 20’s! I enrolled in Santa Barbara City College and this time, I was ready. This time, I found that mathematics isn’t some scary mythical creature but a tool I could use to solve problems in physics, chemistry, and engineering. This time, I was confident, mature, and understood how to access the resources necessary to succeed as a student.  I attended office hours often enough for my professors to know me by my first name. I formed study groups that went on until the late hours. I attended every tutoring session available.  Slowly but surely, math became my strongest skill.

Electrical Engineering showed me I could create devices and write programs that I can use as creative tools.  At that point I knew that Electrical and Computer Engineering would be my focus.  I see limitless opportunities in this department to tackle so many challenges that people face. 

As you can probably guess by now, in 2019 I was admitted to USC Viterbi as a transfer student! This has been one of the most rewarding and amazing experiences of my life.  On campus I became involved with the Women In Engineering (WiE), the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE).  I attended the NSBE Conference in Detroit, and I was interviewed and offered internships with Northrop Grumman, Solar Turbines, and Harley Davidson.  Over the summer I interned at Solar Turbines where I learned how to use Python to facilitate machine learning and design data analytics systems.

When I took an Embedded Systems and Linear Circuits course at USC, I learned about more ways to design hardware and circuits – something I had come to love at community college.  One of my final projects was to build an electric guitar. This class demonstrated how I could use engineering to create art that's functional and useful.  Electrical engineering showed me I could create devices and write programs that I can use as creative tools.  At that point I knew that electrical and computer engineering would be my focus.  I see limitless opportunities in this department to tackle so many challenges that people face.

As a freshman in 2007, I was disappointed that I had to give up on engineering. Today, I realize how lucky I am that my path back to engineering took so long. Would I have seen engineering as a service to community if I hadn’t struggled through college myself and worked with other African American students at ASP? Would I have been able to see the beauty and creative potential in engineering if I hadn’t spent time as an artist? Would I have been able to approach my engineering studies with a business mindset if I hadn’t spent time as a business owner myself?

I took a huge risk because I am ineligible for many scholarships or loans due to my lack of engineering experience.  School can cost a lot and I’m not getting any younger.  Some friends and family assumed I would drop out or change my mind.  It’s been my goal to prove them wrong and to prove to myself that I can succeed.

So far, I have exceeded my own expectations and have yet to discover the limit to what I can achieve. I'm looking forward to a future where I will have the opportunity to blend my experiences as an African-American woman, an artist, a businesswoman and an engineer.

My path back to engineering may have taken some time, but looking back on it now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Randi is a Junior in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. She serves as USC NSBE's public relations chair, is a member of USC's WiE program and IEEE@USC. She interned at Solar Turbines and has received an offer to intern this Summer at Raytheon. As a working/off campus student, the generous support of USC Viterbi, and her friends and family have allowed her to remain at USC.

  • Randi with fellow USC ECE students at the NSBE Fall Regional Conference in San Francisco, where Randi won 1st place in the Elevator Pitch Competition (PHOTO CREDIT: Randi Burley)

  • Randi with her mother at her graduation from Westchester High School in Los Angeles (PHOTO CREDIT: Randi Burley)

  • Randy Burley

    Randi (center) with student staff she hired and trained at UCLA's Academic Support Program (PHOTO CREDIT: Randi Burley)

  • Solar Turbines, Randi Burley

    Randi with members of Solar Turbines Summer internship program in San Diego last Summer (PHOTO CREDIT: Randi Burley)

Published on January 14th, 2020

Last updated on March 30th, 2021