Sisterhood of success: Three Auburn Engineering alumnae embrace education, family

Published: Oct 5, 2023 10:00 AM

By Bethany Deuel

From a young age, sisters Julie Nguyen, Kathy Martin and Carolyn Farmer were taught the value of education.

After the Vo family immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in the late 1970s, their father, Son, attended night classes at Calhoun Community College in Huntsville to earn his electrical technician associate degree while working full time. He knew the opportunities education would unlock for his daughters.

 “There was always a focus on education,” Nguyen said. “Our dad made sure that we had everything we needed to focus on our studies. He drove us to focus and do well in school.”

Raised in Huntsville, each of the girls saw Auburn University as the natural choice for their college education. And, with their parents’ encouragement, all chose to study engineering.

“I looked at other schools, just to say I looked, and even turned down a scholarship at another school, but I think my heart was always in Auburn,” Farmer said. “My older sisters were there, we visited a lot, the campus was stunning, and I felt comfortable there. I love the community.”

Despite pursuing different extracurriculars while on campus, they all had one shared experience — they were each one of few girls in their engineering classes and labs. While this was often difficult, Farmer remembers being the first student in mechanical engineering to complete a project on the then-brand-new computer numerical control (CNC) lathe machine because of her ability to skillfully operate the manual lathe, due to her attention to detail and deft fingers. 

“As the only girl in many of my surveying classes, I usually got stuck with taking notes instead of playing with the equipment,” Martin said. “But there are so many skill sets that women excel in, like attention to detail.”

Between the three of them switching majors a few times each, the sisters covered most of the engineering disciplines offered at the time. Nguyen graduated in 1993 in electrical engineering, Martin in 1994 in civil engineering and Farmer in 2000 in mechanical engineering — each in only three years. 

Though they all made their way back to Huntsville, each of the Auburn alumnae took their degrees into different fields. Nguyen worked in software development for a missile defense program and at Chrysler before taking time off to be a stay-at-home mom. 

“Even after the time I took off to stay at home with my kids, my Auburn degree was still marketable,” Nguyen said. “I didn’t have any problems getting back into the workforce.” 

Martin was one of the first few city engineers in Huntsville, where she now leads a team of more than 20 engineers. As the director of city engineering, she oversees the design and construction of public infrastructure projects including roadways, sidewalks, sewage systems, drainage systems and more. 

“It’s a very exciting time to be here,” Martin said. “Just knowing I first came here when I was five years old and seeing it change, I definitely have a vested interest in Huntsville. To be a part of the growth of the city has been exciting for me.”

Farmer had just begun a job at Boeing after her graduation when the tragedy of 9/11 happened, opening doors for her to begin her civilian career with the U.S. Army at the Development Command Aviation and Missile Center supporting worldwide sustainment programs, as well as the development and fielding of new technologies.

“Engineering gave each of us the opportunity to showcase that we had the ability to apply our degrees to support highly technical areas,” Farmer said. “For me, it was always, ‘How can I take an engineering degree and turn it into something more to truly make a difference?’” 

Farmer is now one of the newest members of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s 100+ Women Strong program, the force to recruit, retain and reward women in engineering at Auburn. Her experience mediating between government and industry stakeholders in the aviation and missile defense sector has led her to believe in the value of diverse thinking to accomplish common goals.

“As 100+ Women Strong continues to pursue their efforts, it will normalize engineering for women,” Farmer said. “From a wholistic perspective, you need a diverse team — as we do in the Department of Defense to get a new weapon system out into the field and offer our soldiers a competitive advantage to win. Everybody needs to bring their piece to the table so we can solve difficult problems quickly.”

Now, with their own families, Nguyen, Martin and Farmer are passing down values from their parents by teaching that with a hard work ethic and education, anything is possible.

“Dad was definitely right,” Nguyen said. “With his encouragement, we’ve each gotten a great return on investment from our degrees from Auburn.”

Media Contact: Bethany Deuel, bcd0048@auburn.edu, 334.844.5519
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