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Beating Challenges to be the Best

Published on April 25th, 2017

At the Rio 2016 Olympics, American Helena Scutt teamed with Paris Henken to finish tenth in the 49erFX. When Paris returned to school, fellow 2016 Olympian Bora Gulari recruited Scutt for a 2020 Nacra 17 campaign. And Gulari is impressed.

“I have never met a more motivated sailor than Helena,” said Gulari, a 2-time Moth World Champion and 2009 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. “If you want to see some of the best female sailors in the world, look at the front of the Nacra 17 fleet.”

Scutt, who will finish her Master’s degree (Mechanical Engineering) at Stanford in June, has a story to tell that she hopes will help other women.

I was an undergrad at Stanford while competing on the school varsity sailing team at the same time. Both my father and grandfather were engineers, which initially sparked my interest. But there are a lot of stereotypes about engineering, which made me feel like I didn’t fit the mold.

During my freshman year I was in the Intro Physics class taking the midterm exam. I sat in the back of a classroom full of hundreds of students. I got stuck on a problem and looked up and around at everyone in the room. They were all furiously scribbling away.

It seemed like they had all the answers and I didn’t. I started to think, “I’m blonde, a female and an athlete, I don’t belong here.” You probably think that sounds very superficial, but the funny thing about stereotypes is that they may not be real, but their effect is very real.

This experience was a turning point for me. I started opening up about my feelings. I went to Adina Glickman, who runs the Resilience Project [in the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning], and told her about my insecurities. It’s hard, but I think it’s really important to talk about these things, to show our vulnerability. I think in the end my willingness to share helped me to get the support I needed to overcome these obstacles.

The summer after my sophomore year I did research with Professor Sheri Sheppard’s Designing Education Lab. I read social science papers on the role of gender and how it affects the engineering pipeline. It opened my eyes to all of the external and cultural factors at play.

Along the way I also discovered psychology Professor Carol Dweck’s work on the fixed versus growth mindset. She explains why it’s not just our abilities or talent that determines our success, but whether we approach challenges with a fixed or growth mindset.

This perspective has been super helpful for me, not only in school, but also in sailing for the U.S. Olympic team. STEM and sailing are similar worlds for me.

People look at me and say, “Oh, you got into sailing because someone in your family does it.” There is this notion that you’re either born with the talent or skill or you’re not. Let me tell you, I was not born knowing how to be an Olympic sailor. Nor was I born knowing how to do differential equations.

We’ve all been in a class where someone raises their hand to answer a question and you have no idea what’s going on. In that moment, without any contextual knowledge, it’s easy to feel like that person is really smart and you are inadequate. But then you come to learn that, actually, that person took a similar class before, so they’ve been exposed to the material, whereas everyone else is grappling with it for the first time.

The bottom line is: No one knows something you can’t learn yourself.

Competing on the sailing team and studying at Stanford definitely got crazy at times. For instance, ME203 is a machine shop class where you build things, but you have to sign up for certain time slots in the lab. While I was taking that class, I was gone at College Sailing Nationals for 10 days in a row, which meant I had to finish building my product a week earlier than the deadline. It took a lot of planning and discipline to be able to do both.

When people ask me, what keeps me going, I say that I hate the thought of someone working harder than me. And ultimately, I learned to love the process. For me, it’s not about the fleeting moments of glory; it’s about the process of self-discovery. Challenges force you to take a hard look at yourself.

A week before my senior year I was competing in France at a world championship. We were hit by another boat. I broke my spine and had a lot of internal bleeding. It was a mess. It happened in a split second. It made me realize how lucky I am to be able to do things that I love and feel passionate about.


Bora Gulari and Helena Scutt.

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