“If you can get into MIT and then graduate, there is not a whole lot in life you can’t tackle,” says Toni Schuman, the new president of the MIT Alumni Association. That belief has guided her throughout her career–from the Boston Naval Shipyard to TRW–and in her volunteer work, whether with MIT or Habitat for Humanity.
When Schuman came to MIT as a student, there were a total of 60 undergraduate women on campus and only 16 in her class. Some professors made it clear that they were uncomfortable having her in their classes. Some of the male students gave her a hard time–especially in the machine-tools lab, where strength was an asset–but she never let it get to her. “I don’t focus on the bad stuff because it’s a futile exercise and not a lot of fun,” she says. “I just march right on like I belong here and sooner or later the nay-sayers give up!”
Before MIT, she was a high-school athlete playing field hockey, softball, and basketball. As a freshman, she badgered MIT to allow women to play sports. Schuman successfully convinced the Institute to let women use the basketball courts on the top floor of Walker Memorial, but the plan faltered when too few women wanted to play. She did, however, participate in the only sport that allowed women to compete with men: sailing. For her expertise, she won the first MIT varsity letter awarded to a woman.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Schuman drew on her MIT training–for about six months. On the job at the Boston Naval Shipyard in 1958, she was using a slide rule to do tedious head-loss calculations, which documented fluctuations in water pressure. Her boss suggested that she talk to colleagues who were installing a computer, an early model with vacuum tubes and punch cards, to see if it might be able to do the calculations for her.
Within days, Schuman discovered that her future was in computers. There were few programmers and no such thing as computer science, so the field was wide open. “Programming in those days was an art form and an exciting challenge, not a job,” she recalls. “For the first time in my life, my technical skills were accepted without anyone questioning my sex. I had the most fun kind of job–solving puzzles all day long!”
Schuman worked for several computer manufacturers developing hardware and software, and then spent 27 years in the defense industry, first at Litton and then at TRW. She built Tacfire, the first automated battlefield system, as well as numerous command and control systems for the U.S. Army, and she worked on several classified projects. She retired in 1996 but continues to consult with Northrop Grumman, which bought both Litton and TRW. Along the way she had two children, and she now has four grandchildren.
These days, as chair of the construction committee of Habitat for Humanity, Los Angeles, Schuman spends most weekends pounding nails. In the last 15 years, she has helped build more than 100 houses. She is also secretary of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Association of the United States Army.
Her involvement with MIT includes 45 years as an educational counselor, and she has served as president of the MIT Club of Southern California and on the Alumni Association Board. Schuman has been a member of the MIT Corporation and five visiting committees; she remains active on the DAPER Visiting Committee. She received the Lobdell Award in 1985 and the Bronze Beaver in 1994.
“Volunteering with MIT allows me to give back to the Institute,” Schuman says. “It helps me stay in touch, continue to learn, and most important, feel good inside. I’m looking forward to working as the Alumni Association president to build an ever stronger connection between alumni and the Institute.”