Brown-Forman Engineering Academy Preps Freshmen for Speed School Experience

Aug. 5, 2022

By Holly Hinson 
From left: BFEA students Rustam Rana, Emma Jackson, Murphy Fenzl and Vy Pham

From left: BFEA students Rustam Rana, Emma Jackson, Murphy Fenzl and Vy Pham

Brown-Forman Engineering Academy (BFEA) is a comprehensive two-week summer program designed to prepare accepted incoming engineering freshmen both academically and personally for Speed School of Engineering. This enrichment experience is tailored to assist students with their transition into college through academic prep, peer support, faculty relationship building, and student success programming. The 2022 class, the first in person since 2019, doubled the cohort accepted from previous years to 46 students.

BFEA not only establishes a close connection with the whole cohort, but also encourages bonding through eight-person mentor groups, something Emma Jackson found helpful because she could connect directly with others like herself. A graduate of Boyle County High School in Danville, Kentucky, Jackson said it wasn’t until her senior year of high school that she began to become friends with other students who liked STEM, especially other females.

“When I first figured out I wanted to go into engineering it was difficult knowing I was a female going into a male-dominated field, not to mention the academic rigor of it,” said Jackson. But the BFEA experience introduced Jackson to a Speed School sisterhood, she said. “For a long time, they’re going to be a great support system for me. I feel like we are going to carry on to become even better friends.”

Jackson, who said she decided to study Mechanical Engineering when she fell in love with physics, appreciated the opportunities BFEA afforded to explore every single discipline of engineering. “There were presentations on bio, mechanical, industrial and we saw the robots in the lab and the processes behind all those,” she said.

Her favorite industry tour was GE Appliances. “I loved the environment because it incorporates so many disciplines – ME, IE, etc. and we talked to a process and quality engineer. I feel like now I can put a face to industry.”

Jackson said she feels less nervous about Speed School now that she’s been through BFEA. “I realized how vital community is at Speed School and at the university,” she said. “Moving from home, moving yourself to this random place, it seriously opens you up to the city and the university and the people – they’re like me,” she said. “There are so many things I’m looking forward to now.”

Louisville native Vy Pham always knew she wanted a career where she could flex her creativity. “I was very crafty when I was younger and built LEGO mansions, and I hosted a craft show with my sister in elementary school.” Now the Manual High School graduate is focusing on preparing for her freshman year in Speed School of Engineering. As a BFEA participant, she got the crash course.

“I knew the math calculus prep would be helpful because one of the more daunting parts for Speed School, and engineering in general, is the math involved,” said Pham. “I also thought it would be nice to stay on campus to get to know UofL more and help that transition to the move in the fall.”

Alongside the academic rigor of the daily math workouts, Pham said she also pushed herself in more interpersonal ways. “As an introvert, I can struggle a little to invest energy without feeling a little shy,” she said. But through meet and greets and tours, she learned more about communicating with peers, mentors, faculty and others. “I put myself out of my comfort zone with social interactions by sitting at a table where I didn’t know anybody, introducing myself to a professor, and raising my hand on a tour when I was curious about something,” said Pham. “BFEA did a great job making me feel comfortable and heard.”

The BFEA’s focus on diversity in the cohort was also a welcome aspect of the program for Pham. “As a Vietnamese American, my parents were immigrants to the U.S. and there weren’t many opportunities to attend college, and resources were not geared for people of color or female immigrants interested in STEM,” said Pham. “Through BFEA I met so many wonderful girls going into engineering we now have a support group we can relate to going into Speed School.”

Pham said she is excited to explore all the opportunities Speed School has to offer and was particularly intrigued with the tours to LARRI Lab and First Build. “At LARRI, it was getting to see all the disciplines collaborating on one robotics project,” she said. At FirstBuild, they focus on a project from brainstorming all the way to marketing, and it was cool to see products from that makerspace being built right before your eyes,” said Pham. “There is amazing work going on in Speed School research labs and I am itching to get into working there.”

Pham and two of her fellow BFEA grads are all pursuing Mechanical Engineering and specifically interested in biomechanics medical devices. “My ultimate goal for my career is to be able to help others,” she said. “The core of engineering is to improve human life – whether it’s in health care, transportation, the environment.”

Moving into her dorm for her freshman year at Speed School, Pham said she is most looking forward to surrounding herself with other engineers. “Those who go into engineering have a special drive and the way they look at the world is so interesting to me.”

As for BFEA, “I came into BFEA with zero expectations and just allowed my brain to take in experiences, and I want to do the same with Speed School,” said Pham. “I know I’m going to meet great people along the way, and it’s going to be hard at moments, but I just want to keep an open mind and enjoy the ride.”

Murphy Fenzl may win the prize as this year’s BFEA participant with the longest journey to Louisville. A graduate of Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, California, Fenzl chose Speed School for its exceptional co-op program, and because of nearby family. He saw BFEA as a great opportunity to transition from life in California, and learn about his new school and home. “I didn’t know about fitting in and finding friends, and I wanted to be ready for it,” said Fenzl. “This was a great way to make new friends and meet new people and get a feel for the school before getting started.”

The daily math prep was an important component of BFEA for Fenzl. “It was helpful to go back to basics of algebra to get that foundation set up again so I didn’t forget things that are integral to learning new concepts, that really strengthened it for me,” he said.

Fenzl also appreciated the small mentor groups. “I made really close connections with those seven other students,” he said. “Now I can easily text or call and get questions answered or have someone to study with me, or the larger cohort, too.”

Having the opportunity to get to know campus in advance has put Fenzl more at ease with diving right in to his first semester. “I feel much more comfortable knowing I can focus on the hard academics because I know where to go on campus, where to go to study,” he said. “I can have my one goal to focus on – I am ready to just jump into classes.”

Fenzl, who is pursuing Bioengineering, said one quote about engineering he heard from Chemical Engineering professor Dr. Vance Jaeger during BFEA really stuck with him : ‘Engineering’s main goal is just to improve human life.’ “For me, I’ve had a lot of family members with medical issues and if you could tackle, get rid of, or even just lessen the effects of those things, we could change the way that we live our daily lives,” said Fenzl.

Fenzl said he discovered the myriad of opportunities at Speed School, and he is looking forward to all of it. “There are so many things we can do outside of academics, like research opportunities from professors who even accept freshmen, or part-time jobs at FirstBuild or LARRI, which is real engineering experience as a part-time job,” he said. “There is tutoring and everything else that helps us get through Speed School and have greater experience for when we go to our careers,” said Fenzl.

Fenzl can’t wait to begin his journey. “Now 46 of us are well connected and great friends, and we can build that community starting with our cohort, and expand to make Speed School an amazing experience for all students.”

Sophomore Rustam Rana said when he attended Brown Forman Engineering Academy (BFEA) in 2021, he and the rest of the cohort all thought it would be like a math boot camp. He soon learned it was indeed math and calculus skills, but it was also so much more.  A Mechanical Engineering major, Rana is now a mentor for the program this year. “You do four hours of math every day, but it is really the things that surround it,” said Rana. “The activities where you have to work together to solve problems, like the Escape Room, help you build relationships, build a support system.”

His own experience with BFEA informed his interaction with his mentee group. “Everyone asked me about being nervous, which is exactly why I became a mentor so I can help them feel better about coming to Speed School,” he said. “It may seem impossible but it’s not – people in BFEA can do it, but they are still coming into it thinking that they can’t,” he said. “I remember my mentor helped me feel less ‘imposter syndrome,’ he said. “They told me the ins and outs and it all became more normal and less of a threatening thing,” said Rana, “and I wanted to do the same for my mentees.”

The best part of mentoring has been working with students and helping them get more engaged with each other, said Rana. “They came in like a lot of engineers, myself included, being very introverted,” he said. “I was able to eventually get them into conversations and show them that a lot of them did the same things in high school, have common history, interests and passions.”

Liliana Martinez can attest to a 360- degree view of Brown Forman Engineering Academy – as a former participant, mentor, and this year as an organizer for the program.

A native of the Virgin Islands, Martinez came from a high school class with eight students and moved to Louisville not knowing a soul. Now a junior Bioengineering major, she attended BFEA in 2019.

“BFEA really helped me with that transition to be more comfortable before classes started because I was meeting people that I would see in classes as well as some of those professors,” said Martinez. As first in her family to attend college, BFEA encouraged her to pursue her dreams. “It was a crazy thing for me to be going into engineering school but BFEA made me feel like I could definitely do it.”

As a participant, Martinez found the math assistance valuable, as well as learning to be her own advocate.  “There are tons of resources within Speed School and the university as a whole, and tons of people who want to help you,” she said. “It’s just speaking up for yourself and finding the right person who can assist you with whatever issue you have.”

In 2020, as a BFEA mentor, Martinez felt an immediate bond with her mentor group. “When I went through the program I remember being so nervous and thinking, ‘Oh my Gosh, I don’t know any of these kids,’” she said. “I could easily relate to my mentees and their diverse backgrounds because I have been in their shoes before; with being a first-time college student within their family, experiencing adversity in their life, and COVID and everything,” she said. “It was just nice to be able to share my story of what I took from BFEA.”

In addition to a sense of belonging, the program gives students the opportunity to begin networking early, said Martinez. “It’s great to have that background and make so many connections with not only your peers, but with professors, and with the Deans,” she said.  “Especially in this industry, networking is important because sometimes it’s not even how well you do in class, it’s how well you can socialize with others and sometimes even just the people you know.”

As for her personal ambitions, the Bioengineering major said she hopes one day go to medical school and become an OB-GYN and join Doctors Without Borders to travel to developing countries, helping women.

Currently, Martinez is on co-op at Boston Scientific in Bloomington, Indiana but said that believe it or not, she is already excited about helping to plan next year’s BFEA. “I know all the students had a blast this year, but it’s an amazing program with tons of potential to be even better each year we do it.”

As one of the event organizers and a female engineer, Martinez was gratified that this year’s cohort, back to in-person for the first time since 2019, was an even 50/50 split females and males. “We are women going into a STEM field predominantly dominated by while males, and it was cool to see them connecting to say, ‘We can do this together.’”

In fact, in BFEA, the entire cohort becomes a built-in support system of 46 other people for the incoming freshmen, said Martinez. “Engineering school is hard and you need support. We can come together to talk and make sure each other get through this,” she said. “It’s almost like a little family.”