“To Thine Own Self Be True” – Building a Life of Purpose

By Mary Peterson

Mary Peterson

Mary Peterson

That is the challenge indeed, as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet. Down through the ages, men and women alike have wrestled with this challenge and others that deal with the purpose and meaning of life. At some point, each of us must decide who and what we will become, and then set ourselves on a path to becoming a person of purpose.

For me, the journey began in 8th grade when my father said to me, “You should be a chemical engineer.” At the time, I had no idea what a chemical engineer was, but if my father thought I should be one, it must be a good idea. Looking back, I hope his advice was based on my proficiency in math and science and not on starting salary statistics. Whatever his motivation, I set myself on the path to engineering school.

The reality of being one of few women studying chemical engineering did not strike me until I got to college in 1983. In my engineering classes, women were outnumbered by a ratio of 6 to 1. This did not particularly bother or deter me, and my male classmates treated me with respect. The biggest hurdle I faced was male professors who simply did not believe that girls could be or should be engineers. During my first semester, it was apparent that my work was far more scrutinized and harshly graded than the work of my male colleagues, and I was rarely called upon in class to share my solutions.

This challenge only served to strengthen my resolve to succeed. While I certainly recognized the unfairness of their scrutiny, I chose to use it to my advantage. Through hard work and determination, I raised the bar of performance and ultimately won the respect of even my harshest critics. I truly believe that I benefited from this experience and probably got a much better education than most of my male colleagues.

So here is the message: In every hardship, there is opportunity for growth. Sometimes it is buried beneath deep layers of ideology and prejudice, but it’s always worth the dig. Each of us will face challenges and fight battles along our journey to become people of purpose. You won’t win every battle along the way, but with perseverance and steadfast resolve to do good, you will win the war.

I began this blog with the words of Shakespeare; I will end it with my own:

The only journey wasted is the journey not begun.

The only races lost are the races never run.

Through the journeys and the races, we become.


Mary Peterson is the acting deputy director of EPA Region 7’s Superfund Division. She has also served as a Superfund project manager and public affairs deputy director.

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