Student combines engineering and fine arts

Randi Burley won a National Society of Black Engineers competition with her “elevator pitch” idea to eliminate the need for a DJ by assessing crowd popularity of songs through thermal sensors. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

Though Randi Burley graduated from UCLA in 2011 with a fine arts degree, her first and lasting love has always been engineering. It crushed her while in school when her 20-hour work week prevented her from pursuing the rigorous major. However, she was happy with the possibilities fine arts opened for her to explore her role in society.

But after she graduated, she realized engineering was still important to her. 

That’s why, when the opportunity arose eight years later, Burley chose to pursue a second bachelor’s degree, finding herself in the electrical engineering program at USC beginning Spring 2019.

“It [had] always kind of been in the back of my mind,” Burley said. “I was not happy with not being able to do [engineering] in the first place. I have an incredible amount of pride, and I’m very stubborn. It’s not easy for me to lose, and it felt like I lost.”

Burley said she looked into her options and discovered that the Viterbi School of Engineering allowed students with bachelor’s degrees to enter the University as transfer students. She decided to enroll at Santa Barbara Community College so she could take prerequisite courses such as calculus and physics to meet Viterbi’s admission requirements. 

Holding a bachelor’s degree renders students ineligible for most University aid, so Burley works multiple jobs to pay tuition and relies on loans to cover the rest. Although quitting her full-time job as a small business owner to pursue electrical engineering was a financial risk, she was motivated by a desire to prove that she could combine two different areas she was interested in, she said.

“I had a lot of friends and some family members who were assuming that I’d drop out,” Burley said. “At the time, I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to do this and prove [them] wrong.’” 

Although Burley has faced obstacles in pursuing her engineering degree while at USC, including an age gap with most undergraduate students, she said she found a welcoming community at the University. Burley said she formed strong connections with people through the Viterbi Center for Engineering Diversity, who have helped her balance school and work, find scholarship and job opportunities on campus and supported her emotionally through her transfer journey. 

“From the first day I got there, the Center for Engineering Diversity has been sort of a home base for me,” Burley said. “I transferred in spring semester, so I was very lost and very new in [the engineering] field.”

Burley is active on campus as a member of several clubs, including Women in Engineering, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.

For Burley, combining her passions for fine arts and engineering was important. At the NSBE Fall Regional Conference in San Francisco, she won first place in the competition which involved promoting an “elevator pitch.” The pitch was a collaborative interface that allowed partygoers to add their favorite songs in order of popularity based on thermal sensors, which would then measure the energy and temperature of the crowd, choosing the best music selection and thus eliminating the need for a DJ.

After more than a year at USC, Burley said her biggest challenge has been taking the first step toward pursuing a career path in an area different from her UCLA bachelor’s degree. 

“A mentor of mine once told me, ‘You have to get out of your own way,’” Burley said. “It’s easier said than done. I went through internal battles, deciding, ‘Can I even do this? I’m an artist, what do I look like even going into this field?’ And I think the biggest obstacle was myself.”

Rajuan Nelson, a senior majoring in environmental engineering, said he met Burley at an NSBE conference. It was there he learned about Burley’s journey into engineering.  

“I remember her telling [me about] her journey from art to engineering and it kind of made me realize the intersection [between the two],” Nelson said. “It’s the way that she articulates her work is so enthusiastic and makes you want to have the same passions as she does.”

CED Director Traci Thomas-Navarro said she knew Burley as a prospective student and had helped her navigate her career path. Thomas-Navarro said Burley was passionate about engineering and took courses for the sake of learning them.

“The courses that she takes really focus on the learning that happens in the classroom,” Thomas-Navarro said. “She’s doing well in the program, but I don’t think the drive comes from ‘OK, I want to get this grade.’ [It comes from] ‘I really want to take in this material and I really want to get to know the faculty member.’” 

Thomas-Navarro said Burley’s story is inspirational to other Viterbi students because most students worry about career prospects rather than genuinely caring about their craft. She said she believes Burley serves as an example of someone fellow students can look up to. 

“I think that she’s a great role model, and she doesn’t even realize how many people she has mentored,” Thomas-Navarro said. “It’s exciting that she comes from a different educational path.” 

Burley said she wants to use engineering to diversify her skill sets in the future and create work that “touches people’s lives in a way that is positive and meaningful.”

She said students should take the opportunity to explore multidisciplinary interests because it allows people to expand their knowledge. 

“This school, and the different departments in this school, are so excited to try something new, to try something innovative,” Burley said. “I think that as a student, you should never be afraid to go after something different or scary, because that’s where real accomplishments lie.”