For Annabelle Koehler, a junior student in the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department at the Cullen College of Engineering and the Honors College, the school has provided her with more than a place for her to earn her undergraduate degree and to pursue a minor in Energy and Sustainability.
When it came to attending the University of Houston, Koehler said the biggest influences on her decision were the financial incentives and the smaller class sizes offered by the school. She was offered an Academic Excellence Scholarship, and in comparison to another school she was considering, she didn't feel like “just a number” in an overwhelmingly large student body.
“Especially being in the Honors College, it's a smaller environment,” she said. “You get to know your professors well, and have better relationships with them.”
This is especially important to Koehler, given an aspect of her background. She attended Santa Fe High School in Texas, and on the final day of school her senior year in May 2018, a mass shooting took place. Eight students and two teachers were killed, and 13 others were injured.
“I tell people that when I decided to go to UH, that was part of God's plan. He knows that if I had gone to another school, I probably wouldn't have stuck with engineering, or maybe even college,” she said. “I had a more difficult transition into college because I had some struggles with post traumatic stress. That having been my last day of school, whenever somebody slammed a door, or whenever topics like that got brought up, it was really hard. Since I had professors that knew me on a more personal level, they were a lot more understanding if I needed to step out of the classroom, if I needed a break, or if I had an anxiety attack.”
Koehler immersed herself in college activities from the time she enrolled. She earned the Coogs Class of 2022 Freshman Engineering Scholarship, the Roy and Lillie Cullen College of Engineering Scholarship in Spring 2019 and the Honors College Outstanding First Year Student Award in May 2019.
Most recently, she earned the William A. Brookshire Scholarship in Spring 2021. In August 2018, she joined the Honors Engineering Program, and in August 2021, she became the social director of the UH branch of the American Institute of Chemical Engineering, and a member of the Society of Women Engineers.
“I immediately started helping out with recruiting. As an engineering ambassador, I helped send emails to prospective students. I gave tours, for the Cullen College of Engineering and the Honors College, and I also have helped with a lot of the female activity,” she said. “I was a counselor for Grade Camp, a week long camp that we did specifically for young females to get them excited and interested in engineering, as well as Chevron Girls' Day.”
Koehler has also held several academic support positions.
“After those volunteering opportunities, I became a chemical processes teaching assistant,” she said. “I was a TA for our Chemical Processes class, which is the first Chemical Engineering course. Now I'm the assistant facilitator for a workshop for that class, where I help lead students through practice problems and get them ready for the tests.
Koehler's grandfather originally worked at Union Carbide as an operator, but later started his own business doing instrumentation. Koehler's father joined that company as well, and she would tag along as he worked. After earning her degree in May 2023, she hopes to work in the petroleum or energy industry – She would be the first in her immediate family to earn an engineering degree, and to work as an engineer instead of a contractor or operator.
“Growing up, I sometimes would go with them to the smaller plants, like the Hitchcock Waste Water Treatment Plant. I would go and just spin around in chairs in the control room, and my dad would show me different things. They'd always bribe me to go by promising we could get Mexican food after,” she said, laughing. “They'd be like, 'Oh, we can go to our favorite restaurant El Sombrero after if you come with me to the plant.' So, I kind of grew up knowing I'd become an engineer one day. They always told me that I would become an engineer one day.”
Koehler said that teachers and friends always pointed out that she had an “engineering brain.”
“I'm very analytical and I like things to have a plan,” she said. “I'm very structured and organized. If you saw my planner, I have almost every minute planned out, which is what I have to do because going to school while working part time can be really challenging without that structure.”
The past two years have been especially busy for Koehler. In that time span, she completed two co-ops for the Marathon Petroleum Company – one at the Catlettsburg Refinery in Kentucky, and another at the Saint Paul Park Refinery in Minnesota – and in Spring 2020, a study abroad program in Wales. She's also gone from Annabelle O'Day to Annabelle Koehler, after marrying her husband, Griffin, in May 2021.
Because she received support from her family, teachers and peers growing up, Koehler thinks it is important for her to provide similar encouragement to others. It's part of why she's so willing to volunteer her time for various organizations at UH, and part of why she still serves as a gymnastics coach in Santa Fe. She claims gymnastics prepared her for the self discipline and integrity it takes to endure engineering school and is thankful to be able to instill those values in the gymnasts she coaches currently, including her little sister.
“I think it's really important for people in general to know that they can be whatever they want,” she said. “For example, I never felt like I could not be in engineering because I was a girl. Growing up, I didn't really see that many females in engineering, but I never thought of it as boy versus girl. I just always had a large support group saying You can be an engineer, because you have the mind for it.' I really think that being an engineer is more about the mindset and being able to problem solve versus your gender, obviously.”
She gives thanks to God, her loving family, supporting faculty, and the amazing coaches and mentors she had growing up.
“Without those people, I wouldn't be where I am today,” she said.