Remarkable former AE Fellow shares her powerful story as a leader in STEM

Established in 1938, the Amelia Earhart (AE) Fellowship is Zonta International's longest running program, and Zonta has given more than US$11 million to 1,245 women from 75 countries.

A 1998 AE Fellow, Kendra Sharp, Ph.D., is a professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University (OSU), currently on loan to the U.S. National Science Foundation—where she has been serving as the head of the Office of International Science and Engineering since February.

Kendra grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, USA, with parents who instilled the importance of education into their children. She followed her siblings to the University of Illinois, where she studied aerospace engineering.

"While part of that is I just really love planes, I heard that it was the most challenging engineering program at the University of Illinois and so that was the one for me," Kendra said.

It was while working on her Ph.D. at the University of Illinois that Kendra received the AE Fellowship.

"I think it's just a really unique award for women in aerospace, and I really appreciated feeling part of something," she said. "It's also meant that I've kind kept a little more of an eye on Zonta International going down the road, and I really appreciate the service mission."

In May, Kendra was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chairman of the Zonta International Leadership Development Committee.

Kendra served as senior adviser for global affairs at OSU, where she provided leadership for the development and implementation of strategic initiatives in internationalization and global engagement. She was also an associate vice provost for faculty development and founded OSU's Humanitarian Engineering Program.

Kendra said her greatest gifts as a leader include her curiosity, drive to succeed and willingness to confront conflict.

"None of those things mean that it's easy and they may mean that I have some challenging days and a lot of stress, but those are my gifts that support me as a remarkable leader," she said.

One thing that has helped Kendra be successful in her career is to always be curious. She also recommends being open to possibilities and being willing to take risks, whether that's professionally or personally.

In addition to her leadership roles, Kendra was named the Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor of Humanitarian Engineering. Her recent awards include an Erskine Fellowship at the University of Canterbury (New Zealand), OSU College of Engineering's Faculty Mentoring Award, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering's Edwin F. Church Medal, and OSU's International Service Award. 

Kendra hopes she embraces being a role model with humility and appreciation for the doors that have been opened for her.

"I have been incredibly privileged in many ways, not the least of which is being a white woman," she said. "I'm a little less comfortable with thinking of myself as a role model and I'm a lot more comfortable with thinking about it as being in a position where I can open doors and I could have a positive impact and I could help people develop and find their own success."

A proponent of mentor networks, Kendra has had the opportunity to help mentor and offer opportunities to faculty at OSU. Now in an office setting at the U.S. National Science Foundation, Kendra hopes to help her staff find success and feel good about their work.

"I get so much joy from seeing other people succeed," she said.

While she pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic has had greater consequences for women and people of color, she said it has also made these inequities clear and undeniable.

"I think we need to recognize these inequities and they need to be addressed," Kendra explained. "If we didn't see them before, we see them now, and we have an obligation to act."

While the post-COVID situation is a cause for concern, Kendra is optimistic about the future for women in the next decade.

"I think the thing is to make sure that we're not our own worst enemies and that we are looking across the board and trying to help each other," she said.

Her personal goals over the next five to 10 years are focused on finding success and making an impact in her new position.

"I hope that I've developed people on my team. I hope that I can point to some specific contributions that I've made, whether it's to women in STEM, to the U.S. national enterprise or to U.S. and international collaboration."

Click here to watch Kendra's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories session.

28 JUNE 2021