‘I Knew I Was Very Different’
University of Idaho College of Engineering graduate Alex Schlotterbeck overcomes addiction battle to obtain chemical engineering degree.
It didn’t take long for Alex Schlotterbeck to look around the room and realize she wasn’t meant to be there.
The people around her showed little to no regret, no accountability and no compassion for the lives they had impacted leading up to this point. These were addicts who had been incarcerated for years, yet still talked openly about how they couldn’t wait to get out and use again.
“I couldn’t believe I’d landed myself in this situation,” Schlotterbeck said. “It was just very hard to process that I had been grouped into this bunch of people. I knew I was very different.”
Schlotterbeck spent two months in jail for a DUI charge as a residual consequence of a five-year on-again, off-again relationship with heroin.
The “hellish nightmare,” as Schlotterbeck describes, was a steep freefall for the University of Idaho College of Engineering student set to graduate in May.
“U of I was always a good value, but then I found out that it also has one of the best engineering programs.” Alex Schlotterbeck
Schlotterbeck had been a successful high school student who finished early, starting a technical program at Chattahoochee Technical College near her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. She was enrolled in the mathematics program and aiming for her doctorate.
Not many college students take a seven-year hiatus, but Schlotterbeck said going back to school was necessary to prove she could recover from the years of abuse she had put herself and her family through.
“I realized all the damage I had done,” she said. “That was a really big eye-opener.”
Schlotterbeck moved to Coeur d’Alene to live with her family and enrolled at North Idaho College before coming to U of I. There, she discovered chemistry and the field of chemical engineering. She said the lab-based coursework and higher starting career wages fit well with her future goals.
“I knew I wanted to eventually start a family,” she said. “In chemical engineering, you’re able to move in immediately and start working at a higher salary. It just seems like there’s more room to grow.”
North Idaho College didn’t offer the engineering courses needed to finish her degree, so she started looking at colleges across the country to transfer.
“I’m a pretty anal person, and am very conscientious with finances,” she said. “I actually put together this spreadsheet that included cost-of-living, transportation, that kind of thing. U of I was always a good value, but then I found out that it also has one of the best engineering programs.”
Schlotterbeck’s first semester as a transfer student wasn’t easy. The death of a close friend because of heroin-related complications pushed Schlotterbeck out of her shell.
“I found people to be very welcoming once I talked to them,” she said. “I have blue hair, tattoos and my head is shaved on both sides. Me opening up helped a lot.”
Her senior class at U of I has since grown extremely close.
“We have barbecues at my house and we go on trips together,” she said. “The help they have been able to provide in classes and working through understanding stuff, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stick with it without them.”
“Alex is very bold. She doesn’t hesitate to talk to people and ask for help,” said Soumya Srivastava, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering. “In this field, it’s important for women to get out and explore. If you’re shy and reserved, you won’t get anything.” Soumya Srivastava, Assistant Professor, CME
Schlotterbeck, who will graduate in spring 2019, said U of I faculty also played a significant role in her earning her chemical engineering degree.
“I received kindness from all areas,” she said. “I had a really good experience with every single professor. Everyone was very patient and explained things in a very understandable way. They motivated me to get things done.”
Schlotterbeck was able to participate in many undergraduate research opportunities at U of I, working closely with faculty on several projects involving microfluidic separation, or the use of a cell’s magnetic properties to control or manipulate it on a microscale.
“Alex is very bold. She doesn’t hesitate to talk to people and ask for help,” said Soumya Srivastava, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering. “In this field, it’s important for women to get out and explore. If you’re shy and reserved, you won’t get anything.”
Although relationships have been strained at times, Schlotterbeck said her family and husband Steve have always been supportive in helping her achieve her degree.
“I have my friends and my family who pushed me to understand my self-worth,” she said. “My mom helped push me toward chemical engineering. I’ve always had an extremely good work ethic, thanks to my dad. And during the hardest parts of this degree, my husband was always there for me to cry to and kept pushing me to get back up on my feet.”
Schlotterbeck is going through the interview process for a chemistry position in Yakima, Washington. She plans to travel abroad immediately after graduation with her husband, with plans to visit family in Egypt and travel to Iceland.
Article by Alexiss Turner
Published in April 2019.