Roya Kambin, NCAS’89, was just a little girl when she learned the value of acceptance—and of female role models. In 1967, when many others were joining the “white flight” from Paterson, New Jersey, her mom put her foot down. “She said, ‘No, that’s the wrong thing to do. We have to live with all kinds of people and learn to accept all kinds of people, and it’s more enriching to live with more diversity,’” Kambin says. “That set the value systems for my life.”
It also made Rutgers University–Newark the natural choice for her college education. “I wanted a real urban campus. I wanted that diversity,” she says. Though she set out to pursue a business degree, she unexpectedly fell in love with geology, which set her on the path to her current work in environmental science.
Today, Kambin, who earned a B.A. in Geology from Rutgers-Newark and went on to an M.S. in Environmental Science at NJIT, is an environmental project manager at Chevron, an oil and energy company based in San Ramon, California. But on a more up-close-and-personal level, she hopes her story will provide inspiration to girls, women, and anyone else who is interested in pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Here, Kambin shares some of the insights she has gained since graduating from Rutgers—and just how much (or how little) it takes to make a big difference in the world.
You make the distinction between a job and a vocation. How do you apply that to your role as a leader?
I grew up with a sense of, “I don’t want a job. I want a vocation.” A job is something you do to earn money, but a vocation is a full and total commitment to something bigger than yourself. As a leader, I say, “I want to build the cathedral.” I want to be a part of something bigger than me. And I want to contribute that in the best way I can bring my talents to that. It’s not just a job where I’m trying to get you to do tasks. I want you to have a better life. I want you to be the best person you can be. That’s a vocation. That’s not a job.
There’s so much opportunity in chemistry, geology, physics, and math.
What advice would you give to people who are still trying to find their vocation?
I think it’s really important to keep your integrity. I think when you look for an employer, you want them to align as much as possible with the same value systems that you have. I also would say, “Keep an open mind.” Because you’re going to change over time. As you mature through your career, you’re going to want and need different things. The time is over now where people went with one company and stayed there forever. As you change and grow, you move, so the more you know yourself and about yourself, and the more you’re in tune with yourself, the more you can make those decisions.
What insights can you share with people who are pursuing or interested in STEM careers?
The dominant push is for people to get into medical or engineering school because people are most familiar with those roles, and the perception is that’s where the jobs are going to be. But STEM is much more than that. There’s so much more opportunity in chemistry, geology, physics, and math than what might appear to be. So, keep an open mind, and don’t [get] pigeonholed. Try everything before you make up your mind. Look at what’s out there, and do what you love.
What is the significance of women being in leadership roles?
Part of it is just for women and other people to see that it can be done and that we can be effective as leaders. When other women see a woman in a leadership role, they’re hungry to learn how we got there and what we did. But I would caution that gender identity or anything else has nothing to do with your leadership ability. One of my biggest mentors was Dr. Alexander Gates [who still teaches earth and environmental sciences at Rutgers]. He provided much-needed guidance in terms of what my strengths were, what my deficiencies were. He was very honest about that.
We’re just people at the end of the day, and there are great leaders and there are very poor leaders of every gender identity. You can learn just as much from the bad ones about what not to do. Approach everything as a learning [opportunity], and find somebody to talk to [and] get some sane advice as to how to deal with things going forward.
What would you recommend to people who are new to a leadership role?
Don’t be afraid to show your own vulnerability as a leader. We’re not perfect. I do fall down, but guess what? It’s not so bad that you fell down—it’s about how you get up again. Don’t try to cover up how you fell. You’re going to fall down every day in some way, but you get up again. And it’s how you do that that really matters.
Also, I’m keenly aware that my team takes on my behaviors. They’ll mimic the good things about me, but they’ll also do the negative things. I’m not perfect. I let them know, “I expect you to call me out and I invite you to challenge me and disagree with me. I need you to do that. Otherwise, we won’t make each other better people and we won’t grow in our careers or personally.”
How can leaders embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace?
I’m glad to see that courageous conversations are starting to happen. They’re uncomfortable [to have], but we’ve got to do it. We have to reckon with [historical and present injustices] in a kind and compassionate way. We [shouldn’t] make assumptions about people based on the way they look or where [we] think they came from. I keep hearing that it might be superficially better, but it’s really not. Some of us don’t understand because we don’t live in that space. I think an important thing as a leader and just [as a] human is to listen. We’re so busy flapping our jaws that we’re not listening to people. You don’t have to like [what they say], but you have to respect it and honor it because it’s their truth. People run from conflict or discomfort, but [facing it provides] tremendous opportunities that we shouldn’t let pass by.
How are you devoted to paying it forward in terms of Rutgers University?
I left an endowment to the geology department and one to the nursing school [at Rutgers–Newark] because I was fortunate enough, as an urban kid with no money, to get scholarships. And I really want to give back. I say this to all alumni everywhere: You don’t have to do some grandiose, spectacular, earth-shattering thing to make the difference in somebody’s life. It actually takes very little, but you’ll get far more back than you ever give.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This story originally appeared on the Rutgers Alumni website.