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College sophomore Erica Liebman (left) is back at Penn after a twelve-year break from school. During her time off, she spent time as a car mechanic and racing cars.

Credit: Courtesy of Erica Liebman

While students might find their study skills rusted after a long summer, College sophomore Erica Liebman faced an extreme version of this situation when she returned to her books after more than a decade.

Twelve years ago, Liebman took a leave of absence from Penn after her third semester to become a car mechanic. At the time, she was an 18-year-old French major.

Today, Liebman is almost 30 years old and has done everything from working as a car mechanic to designing racecar-themed jewelry to traveling all over the country with a professional racing team.

Freshman year

The apprehension about whether Penn was the right fit for Liebman’s 18-year-old self began well before she got to college.

“I just loved cars,” she said. “I would walk through [a local automotive car school] maybe ten to fifteen times, and I asked them to give me a tour.”

Liebman decided to leave because she wanted to work with cars, and she couldn’t do it here.

“It was a difficult decision to make,” she said. “But at the end of the day … I felt like I had a piece of me I wanted to explore.”

After she left, Liebman enrolled in a general technician program at an automotive training institute in Pennsylvania, where she was the only girl in a class of 200. She found her true calling, however, when she decided to buy a BMW M3 — a high-end racecar — with some money she had made in the stock market.

“It was either going to be real estate or a car, and of course I bought the car,” she said. “I raced the car from New York to Los Angeles … and I realized I loved racing.”

Throughout her twelve years, Liebman moved from being a mechanical shop assistant to marketing car parts before finally catching her big break as a mechanic for a famous California-based sports car racing team called Flying Lizard Motorsports.

Liebman continued to pursue club racing on the side while she worked at Flying Lizard.

Liebman’s father, Paul Liebman, a professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the Perelman School of Medicine, believes his daughter was born with an innate talent for working with cars. A majority of Liebman’s family had been involved with car mechanics, so he was “not terribly surprised” when his daughter announced she was leaving Penn twelve years ago.

“We have a gene pool with a proclivity towards mechanics,” he said. “Erica was able to get the right size socket wrench for me when she was five years old, without even having the right nut in her hand.”

A tough ride

But taking the road less traveled was not always the easiest journey for Liebman. In the male–dominated car industry, she often faced gender discrimination. From sexist comments by fellow students in the automotive school to car parts being flung at her in a racecar rally when she tried to hand out her resume, Liebman has experienced a lot of hardship.

“I came home from tech school almost every other day crying,” Liebman said. “Discrimination is very common in the car industry — it’s a man’s world.”

The decision to come back to Penn after twelve long years of being away from academics was also partly a result of a lack of funding available to Liebman to become a professional racecar driver.

“To be blunt, in order to get those dollars, I would have to have slept with someone,” she said. “I woke up one day and realized it wasn’t going to work. I realized that I was an academic person and what I needed was a college degree.”

After speaking to an advisor, writing a few essays and receiving approval from the admissions board, Liebman is now back to being a Quaker.

She is currently pursuing an East Asian Languages and Civilizations major and hopes to one day work in China. Liebman lives and works in Center City in addition to being a Penn student.

Wharton sophomore Jake Van Koevering, who is in Liebman’s Management 100 team, said that Liebman’s unique outlook on life has benefited the entire team.

“Erica said she was taking the class because it was an area of weakness for her, and I do not know a lot people who would take this class for that reason,” Van Koevering said.

Looking back, Liebman believes her unconventional decision to drop everything and follow her dreams has served her well.

“I felt I had to pursue it,” she said. “I hate living with guilt and regret.”

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