Maverick Alumna’s Grandson Graduates

Like most members of the Class of ’19, Doug Forbes has his eyes fixed firmly on the future and a great job (at Lockheed Martin, no less) that will jumpstart his engineering ambitions.

But this Thursday, when he graduates from the College of Engineering with a BS from the Department of Engineering Technology (ET), Forbes will also be keenly aware of the generations—three of them—leading back through Drexel University to his grandmother Alice Forbes, ’47, the first woman to graduate Drexel with a degree in chemical engineering.

“I think she’d be pretty happy to see this,” said Forbes of his grandmother, who knew before she died several years ago that her grandson had been admitted to Drexel. “It is not a very common thing to have a grandmother with a degree in chemical engineering. I was always aware that I’ve got a very cool grandmother.

“I feel proud to be the third generation graduating from Drexel,” Forbes added, referring in addition to his father, Robert Forbes ’93, who graduated Drexel with a bachelor’s in architecture. “Just being able to say I’m graduating not only from my dad’s alma mater but from my grandmother’s alma mater, well … it’s just awesome.”

Alice Forbes was one among the first class of women to be admitted back in 1943 to the then-School of Engineering in the then-Drexel Institute of Technology. There were just 17 women starting off together, hunting for appropriate bathroom facilities and brushing aside the overtly prejudicial comments of faculty and students. By the end of her freshman year, the other women pursuing degrees in chemical engineering had left the school. Forbes was alone in all of her classes.

That apparently wasn’t a deal breaker for the quiet maverick.

“She struggled at first,” said Robert. “It was definitely a male world, and they kinda pushed her down a bit. But then a couple of them supported her, like big brothers who made sure that she got to do what she wanted. And then, she thrived at Drexel.”

After graduation, Alice Forbes held a job as a chemist in the Franklin Institute’s rubber lab before meeting her future husband and raising 10 children. At Drexel, Alice and other women classmates laid the foundation for the organization that would become the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), and they blazed a path for generations of women through a discipline that continues to be male-dominated to this day. Forbes also contributed generously to Drexel. She was inducted into the college’s Alumni Circle of Distinction in 2003.

But it was not her style to push her own agenda on others, said her son and grandson. So just one of her 10 children—Robert—ended up at Drexel.

“I grew up with seven sisters,” Robert Forbes said, “so there was definitely a very strong female influence in my family, and lots of female empowerment. But even though she was a big Drexel supporter, my mother was never going to jam that at any of us. It was always just there in the subtle things—the magnet on the refrigerator, the Drexel sweatshirts, the occasional phone call to the university.”

“Just being able to say I’m graduating not only from my dad’s alma mater but from my grandmother’s alma mater, well … it’s just awesome.”
Doug Forbes ’19

For his own part, Doug Forbes had always known he wanted a technical degree. But, like Alice Forbes, he wanted to do things his own way. He switched majors three times, frustrated at first with the theoretical side of the engineering coursework. He had been fixing machines and appliances around the Forbes household since he was a little boy, but thermodynamics was a bit too “out there.”

Then, he heard about the ET program.

“There was a lot of stuff in theoretical engineering that I wasn’t wrapping my head around,” said Forbes. “So I went to Steinbright, and I talked to a couple of professors in ET. As soon as I found out that ET was basically the same thing but with a lot more hands-on work, of course I decided that’s where I wanted to go. I enjoyed every course I had there. All that stuff still sticks with me to this day. I have always been very hands-on. That’s just how I learn best, and ET let me do that.”

Doug said he hopes that, someday, he will watch his own children graduate from Drexel, leaving school with “not just a degree but a career,” as his father had encouraged him to do.

“I feel very proud to be the third one,” Doug said. “If I could go back and do it all over, I would make the same exact decision.”