This Friday, Aileen Collins will be the first woman to graduate from the Komatsu Advanced Career Training program, which has been at OSU Institute of Technology for more than 20 years.
Collins said she likes the challenges that come with exploring new things and being first.
“Being the first woman, yeah it’s tough, but it’s also rewarding. People say you can’t do it, but then you prove them wrong,” she said. “It definitely feeds the fire.”
Collins, who grew up in Claremore and Pryor, said she’s been around big machines her whole life when she would go with her dad to work on tractors.
In high school, she learned about the Diesel & Heavy Equipment program at Northeast Technology Center in Pryor, and it was her instructor there that told her about OSUIT.
After she graduated from Northeast Tech in 2014, she worked for a few years for her dad operating and working on large equipment.
“I wanted to go back to school and actually learn how to work on these machines,” Collins said, so she found a sponsor— Kirby-Smith Machinery in Tulsa— and enrolled in the Komatsu ACT program, which wasn’t easy at first. “It was like listening to Japanese the first couple of months, then one day it clicked and made sense.”
Not only is Collins the first woman to go through the Komatsu program at OSUIT, but she’s also the first female to go through any Komatsu ACT program in the United States.
“I always felt like I was just a person in the class. I had no idea I was the first woman to go through the program,” she said. “I had so much encouragement from my classmates and my instructors.”
Terryl Lindsey, dean of the School of Diesel & Heavy Equipment, said the industry is in dire need of technicians and companies have to extend their workforce to include women.
“Aileen was the right person to come along at the right time to prove that this industry has no boundaries,” Lindsey said. “I am proud she chose OSUIT to pursue her dream. I am also proud that Kirby-Smith gave her the chance to pursue that dream.”
Collins would alternate spending eight weeks at OSUIT learning and training in the classroom and lab space and then eight weeks working at Kirby-Smith in Tulsa. Working in the shop during her internship terms, she said most of her co-workers were accepting and supportive, but she still faced challenges.
“Even working for my dad’s company I learned quickly that I had to have a thick skin,” she said, but even those who originally seemed to underestimate her now see her as a colleague. “Seeing the change is nice. You see someone’s perception change.
“I hope this brings more diversity. I hope shops try to accommodate more women. Bringing that diversity is good. Even the guys who have been in the industry for a long time know it’s changing.”
There were also the physical demands of the job to contend with.
“This kind of work, you have to have mass to move mass. These machines were built for men to work on,” Collins said. “So I’m figuring out new ways to do things. Nowadays there are all kinds of technology available. There are cranes that can do a lot of heavy lifting.”
In fact, that’s where she hopes her career takes her.
“I’m trying to get on the crane side of Kirby-Smith,” she said, after spending time on that department during one of her internship terms. “Those guys are so awesome, they were so accepting. They wanted to teach me. Crane technicians can work on all of it, it’s really like an elite technician, but that’s what I want.”
That drive to be better and her problem-solving mentality were also assets in the classroom at OSUIT.
“I think maybe having the female mindset I’m able to pick up on technical aspects a little more easily,” she said. “I like to partner up with the bigger guys so they can do more of the physical aspects of the job while I do more of the technical side.”
Lindsey said Collins has exceeded his expectations and brought something new to the Komatsu program, and he is very pleased with how she’s performed at OSUIT and during her time at Kirby-Smith.
“Aileen brought a different feeling to the program. Most of the student population in the School of Diesel & Heavy Equipment are male,” he said. “I am extremely proud of the way Aileen conducted herself in the classroom, lab and internship. She has a disciplined work ethic and the other students appreciated her for who she is.”
Collins said she was surprised how well she did at OSUIT, but she knew the investment in herself was worth it.
“I’m paying for my own education, I’m passionate about learning. I’m here because I want to be here. I’ve learned so much here, it’s hard to put into words,” she said. “My passion for learning outweighs the struggles I face.”
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