For this TSU engineer, building relationships is most important

As a young student in North Carolina, Catherine attended a visual and performing arts school.

She loved classes where she could use her hands and experiment. Her favorite class was sculpting. She also liked to draw. But she had no idea what opportunities that could bring her.

One day, as she sat in her school’s library searching the computer for career ideas, the librarian walked over to see her.

“What are you doing?” the librarian asked.

“Searching for degrees that I might pursue in college,” Catherine responded.

“Well, what do you like to do?”

In addition to art, Catherine liked math and science. She did do not like history or English, even though she was good at both. The librarian thought for a moment. “Have you ever considered engineering?” she asked.

Catherine had never been around anyone in engineering. She came from a family of educators. But the librarian that day sparked an idea. Catherine visited Tennessee State University — a historically black college in Nashville — and learned about the engineering program.

“It had everything I loved,” she said. “I could be artistic, creative, and do math and science. That’s all I needed. I signed up.”

That set Catherine — who is now Dr. Armwood-Gordon — on the path she pursues today. As an associate professor of civil and architectural engineering at Tennessee State University, she combines her technical expertise in structural engineering with a research interest in the study of structures subjected to natural disasters.

Dr. Armwood-Gordon shared her experiences and expertise during Harpeth Hall’s Black History Month assembly. She spoke of the influential woman in her life. The school librarian who cared enough to be curious about a student’s career search. Her high school English teacher who let Catherine braid her hair as they talked. Her mom, a respected educator who showed Catherine what work ethic looked like.

“She had four kids,” Dr. Armwood-Gordon said. “She played softball, she was an athletic director, she coached, she taught night school, and she ran our house.”

Inspired by the women around her, Dr. Armwood-Gordon pursued advanced degrees and became an educator herself. The engineering profession has brought her the opportunity to travel the world. She has jumped over the Arctic Circle and excavated the land beneath a temple in Turkey. On her journeys, she realized how important it is not only to have female mentors — but to have mentors who look like she does. 

“Representation matters,” she said. “Being able to see yourself in someone else matters.”

Her goal is to pay that forward — as an African American woman in a STEM field.

Relationship builder

Engineering is everywhere, she said. The four walls around you. The lights above your head. The chair you are sitting in right now. Students often ask Dr. Armwood-Gordon to explain the difference between an architect and an architectural engineer. 

An architect designs the aesthetics of a building in a two-dimensional plane, she said. An architectural engineer figures out how to turn a flat drawing into a three-dimensional structure that is safe to be in and functional.

“We take that building and bring it to life,” she said.

That means deciding everything from what lights to put on the outside of the building to designing acoustics to ensure that just the right pitch bounces off the wall. 

“My specialty is working on the skeleton of a building,” she said. “How do we improve structures through the materials we select and how do we design the structural systems to keep humans safer if a disaster were to occur?”

Dr. Armwood-Gordon is one of only six females on the faculty in the College of Engineering at TSU — a department comprised of five programs and 1,000 students. In addition to her teaching and research, Dr, Armwood-Gordon serves as the engineering department’s director of student services and outreach. 

She holds the positions of TSU regional director for the Tennessee Science Olympiad, TSU National Summer Transportation Institute director, board member of the Nashville Region Architecture, Construction, and Engineering (ACE) Organization, treasurer of the Music City Professionals of the National Society of Black Engineers, and she serves on the Metro Public Schools STEM Advisory Board and Tennessee Department of Education STEM Advisory Council.

As she spoke to Harpeth Hall students, Dr. Armwood-Gordon offered some advice.

“As you go through the trial and error of your life, focus on your strengths,” she said. “Sometimes you may feel like you are lacking in some areas. Give positive affirmations to yourself — and do the work.

“Don’t turn something down if you have an opportunity,” she added. “It’s just as good to know what you don’t like as it is to know what you do like.”

And, she said: “Find your passion and figure out how are you going to use it for service.”

In a life guided by creating structures, Dr. Armwood-Gordon believes the most important thing a person can build is relationships with others. 

“People who consistently pour into your life so you can be a better you — those are people you are going to remember,” she said.