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Trailblazer: Niva Oghigian BS ’69, MS ’71

Niva Oghigian

Niva Oghigian BS ‘69, MS ‘71 did what few women of her generation were able to do. She earned a BS and MS in electrical engineering from UIC, received an MBA from University of Chicago Booth School of Business and built a successful career that culminated in 17 years at the aerospace and defense giant Northrop Grumman/TRW in California.

As a woman in male-dominated spaces, Niva blazed her own trails. Now, she’s helping today’s women follow in her footsteps with the Niva S. Oghigian Scholarship. The fund offers a scholarship for College of Engineering students who demonstrate need and merit. It also has several tax and income benefits for Oghigian and was started with a charitable gift annuity. “UIC facilitated my life’s transformation and the scholarship fund is one of my ways to give back.” says Oghigian.

Oghigian knows that education and hard work are the keys to a better life.  She says, “We improve our lives by helping others transform their lives, and add value to the world. It’s important to give back; women have a lot to contribute to engineering and other fields.”

Oghigian’s mother was determined that her two daughters get a college education and prepare for a profession. As an Armenian, her mother survived the death marches in 1915 when most of her family was murdered by the Turks. She emigrated from Turkey with a paltry sum in her pocket and worked 14-hour days to fund her daughters’ education.

Oghigian embarked onto UIC’s Navy Pier campus in 1964 as one of the first women to enroll in the College of Engineering. She had to work diligently to prove she belonged, and recalls one of the deans saying, “Look to one side and look to the other, two of you will not make it.”

The prediction could have come true for her. At the start, she had a difficult time and was approached by then-Dean Dale Walraven in the industrial hallways of the campus. She told him how discouraged she was. He encouraged her to stay and gifted her a set of drawing tools. That gave her confidence. “I thought, ‘If he thinks I can do it, maybe I can,’” says Oghigian.

She also remembers a professor who said he didn’t want any women in his course. But her hard work paid off. She earned A’s and received his sincere congratulations at graduation. Oghigian became a member of UIC’s College of Engineering’s first graduating class in 1969, but she was not the only one. The other female student who started with her also successfully earned her degree in engineering. “We are still goods friends today,” says Oghigian.

After graduation, Oghigian went into UIC’s Engineering master’s program, and on completion, quickly secured a job as a civil engineer for the City of Chicago. Promotion required a professional engineer license, which she pursed and passed 16 hours of testing on the first try.

Some of her most memorable, never-been-done-before challenges were with the Chicago Transit Authority where she led the development and successful implementation of a mission critical information technology (IT) bus scheduling system. At CNA Insurance, she managed distributed IT systems and established one of the first microcomputer service centers providing technical support and distribution nationwide.

When her mother moved to California, and needed care, Oghigian took a position in aerospace and relocated to be with her. She worked at Northrop Grumman/TRW where she enabled a state-of-the-art IT communications and integrated business collaboration environment for a multi-company partnership.

Throughout her education, career and retirement Oghigian volunteered in many professional and community organizations including: student chair of the IEEE; Activities Honorary Society; SWE Chicago Regional Chapter president; first female president of the Illinois Engineering Council, representing 900 engineers; cultural center program director; sailing club chairman; University of Chicago Booth School of Business Alumni Club of LA president; and service on positions at her church including the board of trustees.

Reflecting on her career, Oghigian offers this advice to the next generation, “Sponsors and mentors are extremely important and must be cultivated. If one is not growing in a position, uncover the positive in it, while pursuing a better fit.”

Today, Oghigian resides in California and has explored all seven continents. Recently, she returned from the Canadian arctic where she observed and photographed wildlife. She has also begun researching her family ancestry.