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Emer Phelan smiling and giving a thumb's up outdoors on the Texas A&M University campus
Undergraduate student Emer Phelan moved across an ocean and then across the U.S. to Texas to get her degree in petroleum engineering. | Image: Nancy Luedke/Texas A&M Engineering

"I know that what I'm learning in school will give me the tools I need to be successful when I start the real learning in the field," said Emer Phelan '22.

Learning is critical to Phelan, a senior undergraduate student in the Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University. Every step she's taken to become someone who can make a difference for others has involved upping her education.

Phelan spent her childhood in Ireland with her mom but moved in with her dad in Boston to finish high school.

"I always loved America and saw my future here," Phelan said. "I went from being top of my class overseas to three years in a school where I felt behind the moment I set foot in it. I lost the attitude of thinking I could know everything and accepted that I had to work really hard and learn at my own pace."

When she chose to study petroleum engineering at Texas A&M, the top program in the country for the degree, she convinced her dad to transfer within his company and move to Texas. That way she could get in-state tuition and handle much of the cost herself with student jobs and scholarships. Going into her junior year, Phelan received the full-ride Joe & Susan Richardson scholarship, which allowed her family to worry less about expenses and Phelan to concentrate more on her academics.

"I was already considering Texas A&M when I met an Aggie family in Ireland," Phelan said. "I was trying to decide on universities while visiting my mom, and they told me all about their school and showed me their rings. I thought it was a sign that A&M was the place for me."

I lost the attitude of thinking I could know everything and accepted that I had to work really hard and learn at my own pace.

Emer Phelan

Like many students, Phelan came to Texas A&M not knowing anyone else. She signed up for Engineering Honors right off the bat, planning to take advantage of early registration for classes, and quickly realized the program offered two significant benefits: meeting other academically focused students and attending weekly seminars featuring industry professionals. Through Honors Scheduling Socials, she learned valuable tips from older students on choosing professors and preparing for labs and exams. But the industry speakers were always the highlight of her week.

"Those seminars would give me that pick up I needed when I was in the weeds," Phelan said. "I would call my dad as I walked back to the dorm so I could tell him what I learned because it made me so excited."

Phelan was dead set on petroleum engineering, though several students tried to talk her out of it. Seeking support, she attended a sophomore retreat hosted by the student chapter of the Society of Petroleum Engineers. There, Phelan met students who had the same passion for the major she had. She also spoke with former students in the oil and gas industry, one of whom offered her an internship once she finished her sophomore year.

That first internship had a considerable impact on Phelan. Anxious to learn fieldwork firsthand, she jumped at every opportunity to go out with her foreman and listen closely as he explained operations while they happened. When the reality of workovers and pump teardowns knitted together with the academic information crammed into her head during classes, she understood things on a different level.

"I had so many epiphany moments that summer," said Phelan. "I was writing stuff in my notes app all the time, trying to remember everything I could — everything I was told. I almost didn't want to come back to school, but I need my degree." 

Phelan enjoys being an Aggie. She has embraced the Aggie spirit, marveled at a seven-overtime football game and, despite any temporary separations caused by COVID-19, made the kind of friendships that last a lifetime. Three weeks after her graduation in May, she will marry a fellow Aggie, a young man she met in a tradition-oriented student organization the spring semester of their freshman year.

Phelan also gives back to younger Aggies every chance she gets. Last year she planned the same sophomore retreat she once attended, though it had to be held virtually. This year, Phelan helped with prospective high school student sessions and department recruitment, anything to provide choice-of-major support for others who might feel pressured to go elsewhere.

"Even when people tried to make me doubt, I knew I wanted to be petroleum," said Phelan. "I knew this was for me. Petroleum is a necessity, the backbone of today's energy, and I want to be a part of that."