How the Art of Listening has Fast-tracked a Dream Engineering Career
The start of this conversation is a bit uncomfortable for Yuejun (Pearl) Guan, even as she smiles. First, just call her Pearl. It makes her feel at home. Pearl would rather listen than talk or type. She prefers to ask questions rather than answer them. That’s why the topic of this conversation makes her uneasy. It’s about her.
“I’ve always been curious about things beyond myself,” she says, “so I like to listen.”
It sounds so basic. Listening. But the way she does it is the reason she was able to learn English a few years ago, then develop a fascination for the complex topic of power and renewable energy, then finish her degree in electrical engineering at UCF early and accept a full-time position with Florida Power and Light (FPL). It’s also why Pearl remembers a friend telling her, “You’re living the college student’s dream.”
“It’s rare to have things work out the way you envision them before starting college,” Pearl says, almost apologetically and without a hint that she’s speaking a second language. But ask more from this young woman whose mother gave her the name of a treasure when she was born. And listen as Pearl explains a time when she did not feel like a treasure or like she was living a dream.
Lijie Guan moved to the U.S. with 13-year-old Pearl from the Chinese province of Guangdong so her daughter could have a future with choices.
“But honestly, it wasn’t a smooth transition,” Pearl says.
She could not see a future beyond the ominous language barrier. During primary school in China she’d taken English as a second language, but the lessons were based on repeating rudimentary phrases:
Hello. How are you? Where is the fish?
None of it helped a teenage immigrant about to enter high school in Orlando. Pearl spent that first summer alone, doing what had always helped her comprehend new topics: Listening. She listened to movies and TV shows, like Modern Family. She went to museums and pressed buttons to hear history and science explained in recorded English. The loneliness weighed heavy as she began ninth grade. A math class, of all things, changed everything.
“I realized math doesn’t have a language barrier,” Pearl says, “and I was good at it.”
The fondness for math led to a physics class, where Pearl watched a teacher connect a magnet to a drill bit and create a spinning magnetic field.
“The only way I can explain it is to say it sparked a new joy for me,” she says. “I’d never touched tools in China or played with Legos, but by the time I was 15 I could envision the way circuitry works. It helped me overcome the language barrier and gave me direction. I knew I wanted to study electrical engineering in college.”
Pearl briefly considered out-of-state universities, but she’d already witnessed research first-hand at UCF. While still in high school, she had convinced a chemistry professor to allow her to shadow him during a project.
“For him to welcome me into the lab said a lot about the culture at UCF. I’d watch and listen to the way instructors worked with students. That’s what I wanted, to gain engineering knowledge from people who love the subject and love teaching.”
During her freshman year at UCF, Pearl spent as much time as possible in and around the shiny L3Harris Engineering Center. The classes and overall vibe added clarity to her vision, to “a future with choices,” as her mother said. Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 stopped everything. Strangely enough, the shutdown opened a new door for Pearl: an introduction to the student group Outdoor Adventure.
“I made a lot of friends who wanted the same thing I did — to be socially distanced outdoors. One of the challenges for most international students, besides language, is that we don’t have cars. The Outdoor Adventure organizers made it easy — the affordability and transportation — especially for those of us who didn’t know anything about paddle sports.”
Pearl showed up for her first kayak trip on the St. Johns River before sunrise and asked about paddling technique the same way she’d drop in on her UCF professors to ask about circuitry. As an intern with Enercon, Pearl’s curiosity impressed the staff so much they gave her an independent project to redesign a powerline within a hurricane-prone area in Sarasota. It wasn’t for a test. It was for real.
“They used my design to build the powerline three months later,” says Pearl, who drove to Sarasota, Florida, during a break from classes to see it for herself.
A few weeks after the internship with Enercon, she started another one with FPL. Still just a sophomore, she would arrive at 5 a.m. and go from engineer to engineer, asking questions. She stood in a control room to watch how power grids affect millions of lives. One day she heard another intern from an underdeveloped country describe how the power in his village would cut off every evening and how he tried to sleep in the heat while waiting for the small fan at the foot of his bed to come back on.
“That was a big moment for me,” Pearl says. “Everything I’d envisioned was coming together right in front of me. I could use my degree in load flow analysis to do something for the greater good — make power more reliable and improve lives all around the world.”
The team at FPL had a vision, too, of Pearl working with them full-time, asking tough questions and helping to solve problems. So, three weeks after UCF’s Dec.15 commencement ceremony, Pearl will take a few steps deeper into the future she envisions. She’ll move to an apartment in Miami. She’ll have two cats. And every day Pearl will go into a workplace where she can live her dream and be a treasure to the world.