Posted March 13th, 2014
It comes as no surprise that Yvonne Fleming (‘94EE) is super smart; everyone knows that graduates of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering are smart. She's also traveled over 30 countries, was the first woman to play basketball at Poly, taught herself to play the drums and keyboard, and writes her own comic monologues. We sat down to talk to Fleming about her time at the School of Engineering; her career, which has included stints as an Army officer, systems engineer, director of operations, and stand-up comedian; as well as her philosophy of life.
Q: You joined the military before coming to the School of Engineering. Can you tell us what your time in the Army was like and what you learned there?
A: As an Army mechanic, I worked on trucks and tracks, engines, transmissions, wiring, carburetors, generators, alternators, starters, and other items of that type. I was also part of the All-Army basketball team, which was comprised of the 12 best female players in the entire U.S. Army. We won the gold that year. It was truly an honor to be a part of the team.
I was also Airborne—a paratrooper. In fact it is one of the things that I am most proud of. Because now, anytime something seems daunting or frustrating, I just think to myself, “I’ve jumped out of planes. If I can do that, I can do anything." It is a great mental leverage point.
Q: You were the first woman to play basketball at this school. What made you try out for the men’s basketball team, and what it was like to play with the guys?
A. What choice did I have? There was no women’s team, I wanted to play, and I believed I was good enough to play. As far as the guys go, I had to earn their respect, and I did; I still have a mean jump shot and a decent crossover. I did not consider the implications of being the first woman to play at that time; I just wanted to play. Now, however, I am very glad that I had courage to go for it. I am proud to be the first woman to play basketball for Poly, and I’m happy to have a place in the history of the School of Engineering.
Q: Do you feel your time here shaped you significantly?
A: Besides providing a great education, the school helped shape my self-esteem and intellectual confidence. Poly made me realize how different my mind was from others. Because of my time in the military, I already knew I could do anything physically. Poly challenged me mentally. I found that classes were hard, and it took a lot of work to get through them. But I studied, and worked hard. And it gradually sunk in that I could learn to do anything—not only physically but intellectually. Jump out of planes—check. Solve differential equations—check. Once I realized that, I understood that nothing was off limits to me; I knew the possibilities were endless. Now, if there’s something I want to learn or do, I don’t wait for someone to come along and show me how. I teach myself, and consider research to be my friend.
Q: Do you have any mentors that you credit with shaping you?
A: My grandfather was a great role model. He served in the military at a time when racism was common, but he always handled himself with integrity, dignity and pride, and he valued thinking. I learned from an uncle about the importance of attention to detail and having a strong work ethic. As far as female role models, my poised, well-spoken, and successful high school principal set a wonderful example. In a broader sense, I’m inspired by anyone who works hard and has pioneered a new path, whether he or she is an athlete, scientist, or artist.
Q: Do you have any advice for our current students?
A: There’s a quote by Winston Churchill that’s popular in the military: "If you're going through hell, keep going." So, matter how rough a class is, keep at it. Get through each moment--each lecture or assignment--and once enough of those moments are strung together, you’ll see you’ve made it through the entire course.