GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Do NOT fly into Detroit from Liberia

“Each day, about 125 air travelers who have been to Guinea, Liberia, or Sierra Leone arrive in the United States. These travelers should enter the United States through one of five airports and go through a process called entry screening. The five U.S. airports are

  • New York JFK international Airport (JFK)
  • Washington-Dulles International Airport (IAD)
  • Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)
  • Chicago-O’Hare International Airport (ORD)
  • Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL)

When arriving travelers who have been to these West African countries enter the United States, they are escorted to a special screening area. Because the outbreak of Ebola in Liberia is over, screening is different for travelers arriving from Liberia than screening for travelers arriving from Guinea or Sierra Leone.” SOURCE

Did you know that there are only 5 airports where travelers from West Africa should enter into the United States? And that Detroit Metro Airport is not one of them? We did not. Oops! Here is our story on traveling from Liberia to the US and getting screened for Ebola.

Ebola screening in West Africa: Liberia & Ghana

There is no Ebola in Liberia. I repeat, Liberia has been declared free of the Ebola virus. It has been over 80 days (almost 4 incubation cycles) since the last confirmed case. Life in Liberia has returned to normal for the most part, but people are still being vigilant.

Entering into Liberia – When you land at at the Robertsfield International Airport (ROB) in Monrovia, Liberia you immediately notice large hand washing stations on either side of the entrance to immigration. Everyone lines up and rinses their hands and forearms in chlorinated water. Then, a women wielding two no-touch thermometers stands guard at the door and takes everyone’s temperature one by one. She takes the temperature of one person and lets anyone with a normal temperature pass. As the one thermometer cools, she immediately takes another temperature with the other. They read the temperature at your temples and ask you to remove your glasses if you ware wearing any.

Life in Liberia – In Liberia, everyone is still washing their hands in chlorinated water. Almost every business has a bucket with a spigot filled with chlorinated water. If the business has a security guard, they will not let you enter until they visibly see you wash your hands. We encountered this at the apartment complex, the grocery store, the University of Liberia, and even the place where we bought phone credit. They are everywhere and people are happy to comply. At the apartment where we stayed, we had giant bottles of hand sanitizer that we used regularly and had our visitors use. We also brought no-touch thermometers but never needed to use them.

Leaving Liberia – Personnel at the airport perform exit screenings of every single person trying to leave the country. When you arrive at the airport, they have you wash your hands in chlorinated water and fill out a health survey. It asks for your personal information, how you are feeling, and if you have been in contact with any sick people. After you complete the form, a nurse who wears gloves looks over your forms, confirms your identity with your passport, and takes your temperature using a no-touch thermometer. She writes your temperature in Celsius on a sticker and places it on your passport. You are required to wash your hands again and can then finally enter into the airport.

Entry into and Departure from Ghana – Entry and Departure from Ghana followed the same simple procedure. Upon arrival, everyone has to pass through an infrared temperature screening station. There is a person sitting at a computer in the middle of the hallway with two processing lanes – one on either side. Each lane has a computer monitor with an infrared camera image. You stop at a line on the floor and look at the camera. If you are wearing glasses, you must take them off. The infrared camera looks at your heat signature and a button on the screen turns green when it decides that you are normal. The person waives you along and then examines the next person. The procedure is the same for trying to leave the country but the station is located after the check-in counters and before immigration and security.

Entry into the United States

Entry into the United States is much more complicated than leaving Liberia and Ghana. We flew on Kenya Airways from Liberia to Ghana and then on KLM/Delta from Ghana to Amsterdam to Detroit. According to the Customs agents at DTW, KLM should never have allowed us on the flight in Ghana since our final destination was Detroit.

We landed in Detroit around 3 PM on Friday, 26 June. We departed the plane with our things and went to the area where they have the customs / immigration agents and kiosks. American citizens can fill out information on the Kiosks and foreign visitors must do everything in person. Since Liz had declared cheese from Amsterdam, all three of us were in different immigration lines. Sahithya was the person to reach the customs agent. There were video screens posted around that asked for travelers who had been to Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone to tell the agent. Sahithya had not noticed these signs and the customs agent never asked. She was approved for entry and headed to baggage claim.

The next person was Sara. She had seen the signs and immediately told the customs agent that she had been in Liberia two days ago. The customs agent freaked out and immediately put on gloves and a mask. She went and told another agent who commented: “Well, my day has gotten significantly worse.” The customs agents then pulled Liz out of line and sent someone to find Sahithya. They gave us masks to wear and herded us to a back room where the worker from the Department of Public Health sits. Everyone working with us put on gloves and masks. We filled out forms about our travel and waited while someone called EMS to come and take our temperatures. The masks made it hot like in the winter when you have a scarf wrapped around your face. EMS arrived and took our temperatures with a TOUCH thermometer. He put it on one of our temples and dragged it across the forehead. We were all normal and even below temperature. The EMS worker was skeptical about the thermometer reading and repeated all of our temperatures, again using the TOUCH thermometer. We were then cleared to take off the masks, given Check and Report Ebola (CARE) kits, and continued into the United States.

We were surprised at how people in the US reacted to Ebola. While we were in Liberia, we learned that face masks don’t have an effect on containing Ebola. The disease is spread by direct contact of bodily fluids (such as sweat, vomit, or blood) of a visibly ill person. We heard about examples of this when we talked to one person in Liberia, who said, “Every single person I know who had Ebola knows exactly how they got it. I know of no cases of anyone who got it by riding in a taxi or using public facilities. It was by direct contact with a visibly ill person.” For this same reason, touch thermometers should be avoided when checking for Ebola. Fortunately, Ebola is cleared in Liberia, and we are all healthy and safe in the United States.

Final Thoughts

Ebola is a real and a serious disease. It has ravaged Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Thousands of people have died and those three countries will never forget this crisis. Just like the US remembers the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918, it is forever in their history. We hope that the rest of the world does not forget this crisis either and spends more time researching vaccines for diseases that are not “profitable” and affect the disadvantaged. Diseases like Ebola need to be better understood and health systems in the poorer areas of the world need to be significantly expanded.

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GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Profesional Interactive Dinner: Networking for Students and Professionals

One of the main purposes of our trip to Liberia was to encourage the Liberian female engineering students and help connect them (and ourselves) to local engineering professionals and instructors. We thought the best way to do this was to host a “Professional Interactive Dinner” and invite as many female engineering students and professionals as we could. When we landed in Monrovia on Wednesday, 17 June, we had no venue, about 15 students, and less than 5 professional guests lined up. With the great help of our Liberian collaborators, we were able to get all the preparations done for the dinner in less than 5 days.

On Wednesday, we and L-SWE started inviting Liberian students to both a networking workshop on Sunday, 21 June and the dinner on Monday, 22 June. On Thursday we met with E-HELD and invited their team. We also had a short list of professional engineers and other supportive professionals and began to call them. On Friday, we visted University of Liberia and invited Dean Ophelia Weeks from UL and numerous faculty. On Saturday, we met the Society of Women Engineers of Liberia (SWEL) women and invited them and the Engineering Society of Liberia. We even invited people from iLab Liberia on Monday morning. All of our meetings went better than expected. Liberia is a truly marvelous place with genuine and warm people. Even on such short notice, we were able to meet with every person we wanted to and each one promised to try and attend. This would not have been possible in the States where everyone keeps such a strict schedule.

Networking Workshop

On Sunday, 21 June, we hosted a workshop for the female Liberian students who were planning on attending the dinner. E-HELD graciously let us use their conference room, printers, and WiFi. The workshop covered two major parts:
1. What is Networking, why it matters, and how to do it
2. Society of Women Engineers and “Friends of SWE”

Networking
According the the Oxford Dictionary, Networking is “Interacting with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further one’s career”. In Liberia, one student described it as being like your body where each part is one piece of a greater whole and is connected through the internal systems. And in order for your body to function, you must have good connections to each piece which serves a different function. Just as your body has a network of nerves and a different network of blood vessels, you must have personal and professional networks. The Liberian students know personal networks very well since Liberia is such a socially connected country. For professional networks, we brainstormed as a group what each engineering students needed as part of their network:

  • Someone who can provide career guidance or job shadowing
  • Someone who can provide internships or practical experience
  • Someone who can provide social and academic support in school
  • Someone who can be a role model.

After a good discussion on the value of networks, we passed out the list of professional attendees and discussed how to network. In small groups, we thought up questions to ask the professionals in order to learn about their careers and journeys. We also talked about how although networking can be hard and socially straining, with lots of practice it is extremely helpful in your career and life. When networking, focus jot on the immediate return but on building a long-term relationship.

All in all, the students left with much more confidence on how to network with both professionals and students. We had 25 students from University of Liberia and 10 from Stella Maris Polytechnic attend our workshop. By discipline, there were 8 Electrical Engineers, 9 Civil Engineers, 4 Mining Engineers, 12 Geologists, and 3 Architecture / Construction students.

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Society of Women Engineers
Our second component was to introduce the students to the larger Society of Women Engineers (SWE) organization. The students were amazed to learn that SWE has over 30,000 members who are mainly women engineers. SWE is now going international with the creation of two new structures: SWE Affiliates and “Friends of SWE“.

SWE Affiliates are groups of international dues-paying SWE members. It only takes 4 SWE members to start an affiliate! These affiliates have similar structure to professional and collegiate sections in the States. Individual members are eligible for SWE awards but affiliates are not eligible for section awards. Students and professionals can join affiliates.

“Friends of SWE” is a new FREE program for university students studying all disciplines of engineering and technology outside the United States. As a “friend” of SWE, students get access to member pricing, SWE publications, outreach materials, and carer center. We signed up 8 new “friends” of SWE.

Lastly, SWE has created a new international online community located at international.swe.org. It contains places for forums, questions & answers, blog posts, and other good international resources.

Overall, many seemed excited about connecting with the international community.

Professional Interactive Dinner

The highlight of the entire trip was the Professional Interactive Dinner on Monday, 22 June. We hosted it at the restaurant FuZion D’Afrique, which is an African fusion restaurant located at 14th street and Tubman avenue across from the Lutheran church in Sinkor, Monrovia. The owners were extremely helpful and were able to accommodate our group of 65 with a buffet and specially arranged tables. Coincidentally, the owner’s wife grew up in Dearborn, MI and attended University of Michigan and Wayne State University. Small world!

The dinner was arranged to have the students arrive at 5 pm and the professionals at 6 pm and conclude by 8 pm. But, this is Liberia where meeting times are a suggestion and traffic is a mess. Most students showed up about 6 pm and most professionals arrived by 6:30 pm. We were on Liberian time for sure.

The women who attended the dinner were remarkable. The students were actively engaging the professionals and asking for advice. Students from different universities were getting to know one another. The male professionals were kind and supportive. Everyone was genuinely thankful and happy to be there. There was not a disinterested person in the place. We had a fantastic turn-out. Every single student who signed in at the networking workshop attended the dinner for a total of 45 students! Our 20 professional guests included representatives from E-HELD/RTI, faculty from University of Liberia, members of the Society of Women Engineers of Liberia and the Engineering Society of Liberia, professional engineers, a high school educator, and other organizations such as iLab Liberia, Liberians Encouraging Students in Science and Technology (LESSAT) and the Ministry of Education.

It was overwhelming for us to watch the students be full of such joy and confidence. To see 50+ women engineers in one place in Liberia is a very special thing. The best comment of the night was from one student who said that she “had never been in an environment like this before” and that this was the happiest she had been in a very long time. It reminds me of how I feel every time I attend a SWE conference and am surrounded by hundreds or thousands of women engineers. The positive energy is overwhelming and creates a lasting joy.

The dinner was a smashing success. It was so remarkable to see these young women network with professionals and see the professionals provide such good conversation and advice. We hope that this event was a catalyst for these students and we cannot wait to see where this positive energy will carry them.

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GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

The Society of Women Engineers of Liberia

One of biggest revelations this week was that there exists a Society of Women Engineers of Liberia (SWEL). They are a registered Liberian non-profit organization and operate as a subset of the Engineering Society of Liberia. Established in 2013, they are dedicated to supporting women in engineering in Liberia and have collegiate members from vocational schools and universities, and professionals.

We learned about their organization from both a Stella Maris Polytechnic student and a University of Liberia faculty member. To our suprise and excitement, they arranged a cook-out for us and the L-SWE women to meet them on Satuday. This was their first major event since the Ebola Crisis. We were thrilled to meet them. It turns out that although SWEL and L-SWE both started in 2013, neither knew about the existence of the other.

So, on Saturday, we loaded up our van with us and 10 L-SWE women and drove to the cook-out. It was held at Tabitha’s Renaissance, Enginering & Design off of Roberts International Airport Highway. The SWEL women welcomed us with open arms. The food was great too. We had Liberian rice, pepper sauce, fried chicken, fried beef, grilled fish, fish sandwiches, and fried plantains. Super delicious! They even served South African cider, Savanna, and other beverages. Not knowing that there would be so much food, we brought juice and cookies to share.

The women of SWEL are incredible. They are passionate about helping Liberia move forward. Many of these women were from Liberia, left to pursue higher education abroad (China, Ghana, Australia, etc.), but came back to improve Liberia. They are superb role models for the women of L-SWE and Liberia.

The SWEL organization is growing and is looking to become a voice on the international stage. We look forward to helping them get connected with the larger Society of Women Engineers organization. We invited the women of SWEL to our networking dinner tonight and cannot wait to get know them more.

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GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Initial Adventures in Liberia

Greetings from Liberia! We are really enjoying working with the Liberia Society of Women Engineers (L-SWE) so far. Here is an update on what we’ve done. Note – we will add photos when we get a better internet connection.

Wednesday – Planes, rain, and automobiles

We flew into Robertsfield International Airport on Wednesday at around 3PM on Kenya Airways. We were on the same plane as Liberian President Ellen Sirlief. When we landed in Monrovia the flight crew addressed the plane as “Madam President and ladies and gentlemen.” She left the plane in a motorcade. Right upon arrival it was obvious that Ebola had visited Liberia. A large water container read “Ebola is Real.” We were required to wash our hands in chlorinated water and take our temperatures using IR no-touch thermometers before we went through immigration.

After immigration, we were picked up by L-SWE students. They were fantastic and arranged the truck to pick us up. We drove to Monrovia and set up at our friend Emily’s apartment. She is a former peace corp volunteer and current NGO worker and has been super nice letting us stay with her. Wednesday night we took the students out to dinner at FuZion D’Afrique as a thank you for picking us up from the airport. It it was a great way to start off the trip. We handed out SWE UM sweatshirts (SWEatshirts) to the Liberian students too. Despite it being hot and downpouring, they all put them on immediately and loved them.

Thursday – Old friends and new connections

As our first full day in Liberia, we spent the morning planning for the rest of the week. We got in touch with old friends and arranged meetings with new collaborators. With help and input from the Liberian students, we set the time and location for a “Professional Interactive Dinner” on Monday night for L-SWE students to network with local engineering professionals, educators, and influential supporters. The dinner will be Monday at 6pm at the same restaurant from Wednesday – FuZion D’Afrique. They have a private (air-conditioned!) space that can seat 50 people. We have been inviting as many female engineers as we can to this dinner in hope of creating valuable and lasting connections between the participants.

Later in the day we met with an old friend and invaluable collaborator – Yark Kolva of E-HELD. E-HELD was one of the initial supporters of this project. We invited Yark to Monday’s dinner and he in turn provided us with additional people to contact. We will be using their conference room on Sunday to prepare the students for Monday’s dinner.

It must be emphasized that the Liberian students are invaluable partners in this effort. They have been spending all day with us to plan the dinner and meet potential collaborators. We could not hope to do anything without them. We are here for them and they are ready to do remarkable things.

Friday – University of Liberia and Research

Friday continued our efforts to invite people to Monday’s dinner. We drove out to University of Liberia in Fendal to meet with faculty and administration. We visited the lab space and chatted with the faculty. It is evident that the USAID funding is improving this school and providing the basis for practical engineering education. There is still much that needs to be done, but progress is being made.

Future Civil Engineering Lab at the University of Liberia - Fendall
Future Civil Engineering Lab at the University of Liberia – Fendall

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We met with the Dean of the College of Science & Technology, Dr. Ophelia Weeks, to discuss L-SWE and the networking dinner. She provided us with additional contacts and was supportive 110% of the collaboration. She offered to be a mentor for L-SWE and scheduled a meeting with L-SWE to talk about the future of the organization.

L-SWE meeting with Dean Ophelia Weeks of the College of Science and Technology at the University of Liberia - Fendall
L-SWE meeting with Dean Ophelia Weeks of the College of Science and Technology at the University of Liberia – Fendall

After we returned to Monrovia, we began to work on addressing our research question of how does peer support influence academic and personal success of female Liberian engineering students. Exploring this question is allowing us to learn more deeply about the engineering culture in Liberia and how an organization like SWE can provide support. Our initial impressions on this is that there is a need here that SWE can indeed fill and provide resources to help these women Advance, Aspire, and Achieve.

 Next Steps

We are optimistic about the rest of this week and the future of the L-SWE and SWE at UM partnership. The women here are passionate about engineering and have the potential to revolutionize Liberia. We are privileged to work with them and be at the beginning of this initiative. Monday’s dinner and our research will greatly inform our next steps, but one thing is certain – the future of Liberia rests of the shoulders of these women and their allies.

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GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Reflections on my first overseas flight

By Liz Dreyer, EE PhD student

After 18+ hours of travel, we have finally made it to Ghana. Tomorrow we will depart for Liberia. Since this is my first trip overseas, I want to take a moment and reflect on it and give a quick update before we leave. The internet in our hotel is great right now.

Airplanes
This was my first time flying over the Atlantic Ocean. Although I slept most of the way, it was an awesome view. Early in the morning we caught the sun rising over the ocean. It was incredible! I also really enjoyed the in-plane food and beverage service. Did you know that you actually get complementary dinner and beer/wine when you travel overseas on Delta? Even in Economy! I was pleasantly surprised. It was delicous too. They even served complementary beverages like tea, wine, beer, coffee, and juice.

The next leg was from Amsterdam to Ghana. The Amsterdam airport was complicated but we made it to our gate with plenty of time. KLM provided excellent service and even better food than Delta. It was my first plan ride where English was not the default announcement language. It was third after Dutch and French. The views of the Sahara desert were awesome too. Also, did you know that Diet Coke is called Coke Light in Holland?

Ghana
After our long flight, we finally made it to Ghana. The Ghana airport is nice enough but customs took over 2 hours. It turns out that Ghanaian visas are a bit complicated. The hotel shuttle left without us because we took so long, but we just caught a taxi instead. We all feel bad about having the shuttle driver wait 2 hours for us and never seeing us. The hotel is clean and we get breakfast in the morning. We leave for Liberia at 12:30 pm on Wednesday. Hopefully the airport is easier this time through.

Overall, it has been a great day of firsts! First time flying over the ocean, first time in Europe, first time in Africa, first time hearing Dutch in person. I cannot wait to see what other firsts we encounter on this trip.

We will post about our activities in Liberia soon. Thanks for reading!

~ Liz