GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

L-SWE SUCCESS Day 4: Bottle Rockets!

Today was a day dedicated to completing our first engineering activity! Each of the teams were build their own bottle rocket, and compete against other groups to see whose design was the best. The theme of the weekend is “working together”, to focus attention on group dynamics and effective teamwork in engineering.

LSWE bottle rocket team

At 9am, we setup the materials for bottle rockets. After breakfast, all the teams came in to grab their materials and get to work. After about an hour of prepping, we took a break to welcome our first guest speaker of the camp.


 

Peace Corps Liberia Training Director Zayzay Miller (left) and Peace Corps volunteer, Kris (right).

Zayzay Miller is the Training Manager of Peace Corps Liberia. His office trains new Peace Corp volunteers, coordinates volunteer assignments, and manages the Peace Corp properties. He came to talk to the L-SWE women, however, about his previous work as a volunteer in the Liberian Youth Corps. He shared his experience as one of the first cohort of Youth Corps members, which functions similar to AmeriCorp in the US, where young people who are college graduates commit 2 years to serve in communities in need. Zayzay encouraged students to think about alternative career paths after graduating from college, since the employment situation in Liberia is rather bleak and it could be difficult to get jobs straight out of school with no prior work experience.

It was interesting to hear about the Peace Corps work, and the national volunteer service that it inspired. Most of the us had no idea what the Youth Corps were before the talk, and it seemed like it could be a great opportunity for people to gain practical skills in engineering, and also in community organizing around engineering projects.


 

group of students measuring and cuttingAfter Zayzay’s talk, and a Q&A, the bottle rocket building resumed. The goal for the teams were to get a rocket that spent the longest time in the air between launch and hitting the ground. Teams worked diligently all afternoon, just barely taking a break for lunch.

Since we could only use the limited materials the UM team had brought in our luggage, the teams had to be conservative about the materials they used for their rockets. It was quite an ordeal actually to get the right bottles for the rockets– we had to find sodas in plastic bottles in the market that were roughly the right shape and size for a rocket. The logistics team was planned ahead, and we recycled the bottles from the drinks provided at orientation to use for the rockets. However, it was a constant battle with the hyper-efficient cleaning staff at the camp to keep the bottles from getting thrown out. Sahithya tried valiantly to distinguish the stash of empty bottles from other trash in the room, but on Friday morning we were bested by an early morning trash sweeper. After the first batch of bottles were thrown out, we bought more Coke and Fanta bottles, but the Fantas turned out to be too round at the top once teams started crafting their rockets. So we had to go out and get Coke and Sprites. Eventually, each team had enough materials to make two rockets, either to test two different designs or to use as a prototype and a competition model.

woman watching youtube videoThe night before, the students had eagerly looked up Youtube videos of bottle rockets to get an idea about what they trying to do. From there, ingenuity abounded. Teams got to test launch their rockets later in the afternoon, and even though it was raining, the teams stayed outside testing and tweaking their models for hours. Most of the teams got good launches and a strong vertical start, but all the teams struggled to get their rocket’s parachute to deploy. Since getting the parachute to deploy would greatly increase their time in the air, the teams worked really hard to refine their designs to get that parachute done. Next week, we’ll do the competition, and we’ll see who’s design works the best!

 

two girls working together
Designing the Bottle Rockets

 

Getting ready to test launch the rocket, as Sahithya supervises

 

group watching a bottle rocket fly
Successful Launch!
GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

Food in Liberia: The Marshmallow Challenge

On Flag Day, which is Liberia’s independence day celebration, we ended the day with old fashioned American s’mores. Earlier we had a traditional dish of rice and peanut butter soup, and the s’mores were a sweet end to a fun day. (Look for our Day 6 post soon!) The s’mores were a big hit, although 4 family packs of chocolate bars disappeared in short order, even before the fire was hot! Edith, one of the L-SWE founders and camp committee members decided to try a plain marshmallow as a “cultural experience” after the s’mores were finished.

Here’s what she thought of it…

GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

LSWE SUCCESS – Day 3: Working Together

TGIF!!

Day 3: Communication and Culture

Today, we had engaging activities and discussions focusing on strategies and challenges of collaboration, focusing on working together as individuals and in teams.

L-Swe students standing in a circle forname game

First, we re-introduced ourselves by playing another name game. So many new students had arrived in the past 2 days, so we played a game where everyone had to say the name of everyone else in the circle, along with a little dance. In addition to the new students, we had two Peace Corps volunteers, Kris and Brian, who joined us for a few days of professional development. Both of them studied engineering in college in the U.S. and were now serving as math teachers in rural schools in Liberia. 

BARNGA

To start off the workshops, Sahithya led us off with an engaging game of “Barnga.” Barnga is a way to teach about cultural differences and to facilitate discussion about working with people from different cultures. All the students sat in different groups to play a card game. They could not talk, they could only play the game. Every five minutes, the winners of each group would get up and go to a different table. But unbeknownst to the players, the rules of the game were different at every table. Let the confusion begin!


In our debrief, we talked about culture as being a set of rules that most people who are part of that culture know. We came up with 5 tips for cross-cultural communication and cross-cultural relationships based on everyone’s experience in the Bangra game:

1. Be tolerant
2. Concentrate on the end results
3. Be aware of different mindsets
4. Do what you can to learn the “rules” of each culture. Ask and try to understand why those rules are important to the culture.
5. Have a common goal

How can we accept people of a different background into our culture?
1. Make the person feel comfortable
2. Make them feel “not wrong”
3. Communicate your own culture and clarify any “rules”
4. Know why they are there
5. Talk to them and get to know them as an individual
6. Don’t pass judgement quickly

Cultural Differences

After the game, Sara led off an interactive workshop on cultural differences. All the students got into small groups to put on skits based on scenarios of everyday life, work and skill. In each scenario, a group had to portray the situation as it might happen in a different culture. For instance, students acted out how people in a masculine culture might interview a prospective applicant for a job, while another group modeled how a feminine culture might conduct an interview for the same job.

Campers act out scenarios
Students act out “high power distance” classroom situation

After each scenario, the group discussed how the scenario might play out in Liberian and American cultures. It was quite interesting to learn about all the different cultural differences, and also to see the similarities. It was important also to see how these cultural difference might influence how camp participants interacted. For instance, although the UM grad students are “in charge,” because American university culture is “low-power distance” we don’t adopt the same authoritative attitude that the students are used to with a professor or teacher in Liberia, which is a “high-power distance” culture.

 

Identity and Privilege

Following the scenarios, we dropped down from the group level discussions about culture to talking about individual identity. We started off by having students describe themselves in 5 words. Everyone put their words on a post-it note, pasted it on a wall, and then as a group we created categories that describe what the students thought defined them as a person.

students sorting post-it notes on a wall

We talked about these categories – appearance, relationships, career– along with standard internationally recognized identity categories, like gender, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation. In addition to learning more about each other, it was also an opportunity to talk about the concept of privilege. Privilege, in short, is an advantage that an individual has as a result of being a member of a particular group. It is not earned, and usually it is taken for granted.  In our discussion, students identified categories in which they were all the same, but also that they did not think about much. These were ability status and sexual orientation. In Liberia, sexual orientation is a contentious issue, especially given the Christian and Muslim majority, but all the students voiced similar thoughts and opinions. The students also pointed out that although many of them knew a person, sometimes close friends and family, that had a disability, none of them had any physical challenges that made it difficult to participate in everyday activities. The Peace Corps volunteers also pointed out that our students seemed to be much more economically stable and highly education than young people in the communities that they were teaching in, which pointed to different class statuses. To conclude, we thought about how each of our identities enabled us to be successful female engineers, and if there might still be people who are excluded from the opportunities these women had.

picture of bottle

To wrap up the day, Sahithya introduced our first engineering competition! On Day 3, which was a Saturday the students would work in teams to build and test bottle rockets! The students found out their team members, and were instructed to come back to the classroom at 9am the next morning to get their materials and start working.

 

 

This was a full day and at the end, we were all absolutely exhausted. BUT, it wasn’t over! In the evening, we celebrated two of the girl’s birthdays. Both were turning 21, and although Liberians usually don’t do much for their birthdays, we threw a big party. Our amazing catering staff (led by Yamah of Monrovia’s Yamah’s Kitchen) made two big cakes, one chocolate and one pineapple upside down cake, and then we danced danced danced all night long to the everyone favorite African jams! Somehow, Gangnam Style ended up in there, and there was a a congo line, and also a runway-style dance-off. Cultural exchange indeed! Check out our Instagram for photos!

 

 

women holding index cards
GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

LSWE SUCCESS – Day 2: Your Story

After meeting all of the students on Wednesday, we started off the camp workshops on Thursday. The format for each day is to have a morning session from 9 AM to 1 PM and an afternoon session from 2 PM to 5:30 PM. Don’t worry, we make sure to take plenty of breaks.

Know Yourself
The first few days of the camp is broadly classified under the theme “Know Yourself.” The idea is that it is hard to be an effective leader when you do not know your own potential. Each and every person has a distinct personality and leadership style. We explored the idea of preferences using three tools – Myers-Briggs Type Index, True Colors, and an adapted version of the Competing Values Framework.

women holding index cards
L-SWE students exchange cards describing their working styles

MBTI
We played a game to understand our preferences for the four MBTI categories. For each category we read the description of each type and had the students move into groups that were of the type. Then, each group was asked a question. Since similar thoughts reinforce each other it made it easy to tell where one generally belonged. We asked these questions:
1. You just won a cash prize from school of a sizable amount. How do you celebrate?
– Extraversion Goup: They wanted to spend the money on their community, save it or establish scholarships for other students.
– Intraversion Group: They wanted to help their families, church, or charity.
2. We have this strange yellow object. What is it? What do you do with it?
– Sensing Group: “It’s yellow silly putty.”
– Intuition Group: “Is it modeling clay? Can we make something with it?”
3. You are coaching a kickball team and they just made it into the Liberian championship. But, you can only take 11 of your 15 players to compete. Who gets to go?
– Feeling Group: “Let’s take the best players. The ones who are the most dedicated to the team! We can raise money for the others to come spectate.”
– Thinking Group: “Let’s take the best players. The ones who are thr most skilled and will ensure our victory.”
4. Plan a trip to Robertsport (a popular vacation area). What do you do?
– Judging Group: “Let’s organize a committee and divide up tasks.”
– Perceiving Group: “We’ll figure it out when we get there.”

The group had a great discussion about the different preferences. We explored how your preferences change over time and by which situation you are in.

We followed up with True Colors and CVF and showed how the three models relate. CVF looked into how organizations can have personalities/preferences too.

two women look at cards
Allisandra and Urelyn compare and exchange Working Styles cards to create their complete deck

Personal Statements
We followed up with an afternoon session about personal stories of leadership and engineering. Using the generative interview technique, students told stories about times they had success on an engineering team or other group project. Their partner took notes on the discussion and remarked on what stood out to them. The advantage of generative interviewing is that you can work through a story easily with lots of detail.

The stories in the generative interviews form the basis for writing personal statements. These statements will be used to apply for grad school, scholarships, or jobs.

The Future of Liberia
The last activity of the day was a TED talk from Leymah Gbowee about how to “unlock the intelligence, passion, greatness of girls“. In her TED talk video she explains her experience trying to help young girls succeed. She challenges her audience to think about the potential available in girls around the world just waiting to be unlocked.

“Will you journey with me to help that girl, be it an African girl or an American girl or a Japanese girl, fulfill her wish, fulfill her dream, achieve that dream? All they’re asking us to do is create that space to unlock the intelligence, unlock the passion, unlock all of the great things that they hold within themselves. Let’s journey together.”

This camp is part of that journey to create space where women can succeed. These women are the future of Liberia.

LSWE Lappa
GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

L-SWE SUCCESS Day 1: Orientation

images of LSWE swagOn Wednesday, we welcomed the Liberian students to the camp. They came from across Monrovia and the surrounding areas, and all are undergraduates at the University of Liberia, Stella Maris University, and St. Clements University College.

L-SWE swag on a table

As we waited for them to arrive, the UM team unpacked our materials and setup the classroom where we would be conducting most of the seminars and activities. A few of the Liberian members of the Logistics team, along with the undergraduate SWE members took a trip to the market to gather some last additional materials for an engineering activity later in the week.

The students came in two waves, with one bus (shepherded by “Boss Lady” Edith) arriving in the morning just before lunch, and the second arriving just before dinner. To get to know each other and start the camp off right, we spent the afternoon playing games to learn each other’s names and share a little bit of culture.

lswe participants standing under the flags L-SWE SUCCESS at the Peace Corp Training Center in Kakata, Liberia

LSWE participants playing Liberian games

lswe participants watching a game

LSWE participants playing cards

My favorite, was Lappa: similar to dodgeball, but instead of only concentrating on avoiding the ball you also have to match up and straighten a pile of shoes. When you get hit, you tag in another person from your team, relay style, and they continue the straightening effort. When you finish straightening, you count the shoes (all of them, before the other team interrupts you by throwing the ball). When you run out of players to tag in, the round is over and the teams switch places.   

After an afternoon of games, we started orientation in the evening. After introducing the camp and its purpose, every planning team gave a short presentation about their part of camp logistics. Some students opted to join a couple of the planning teams to continue helping out with camp throughout the next couple weeks. It looks like it will be a great few weeks!

group photo on first day of SUCCESS camp
Yay for the first day!

 PS: Here’s where we are…

map of Kakata, Liberia, West Africa

6 members of the UM team
GradSWE Overseas, Liberia

L-SWE SUCCESS: Now now*!

*”Now now”: Liberian english for right now… like, really we actually did it this time. Now now!

Cold showers. Spicy spaghetti. Cloudy skies. Sunny smiles. An afternoon of children’s games. Wifi!!
So starts the first day of the L-SWE Success Camp! We were so excited. Finally, after over two years of anticipation, preparation, and a few setbacks, the leadership camp for women engineering students in Liberia was finally underway. We’ll chronicle our experience over the next few weeks on this blog, as well as our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.
How We Got Here…
It’s kinda a long story– read our previous posts about the very beginning.
In this chapter, the U-M team arrived on Tuesday evening in Liberia after over a day and a half of travel. stacks of suitcases

Starting in Ann Arbor, the trip started at 9:00am on Monday with 6 of us packing up two SUVs worth of luggage– a personal bag each, plus supplies, giveaways, and– of course– snacks. After some Tetris!-worthy packing, we set off for what would be a five hour drive to Chicago, one of the few airports in the U.S. that accepts travelers from Liberia.

Fortified by Maggie’s scones, we beat Chicago rush hour to arrive at the airport with just enough time to check our 12 pieces of it’s-only-51lbs-please-don’t-charge-me bags and boxes, return the rental SUVs, and get all twelve of us through security in time for boarding. Our flight to Brussels took off on time at 5:55, wonderfully half full because a connecting flight was delayed. (bad for them, good for us!) After a bumpy 7 hours, we arrive in Brussels around 8am, where we met Allisandra, coincindentally doing laps around the terminal to stretch her legs. Most of the team had never met Bre or Allisandra in person before the day of the flight, but somehow it was like we’d been together all along.

After a couple hours wait, we boarded the plane for Liberia, and after another 5 hours, landed safely in Monrovia.

6 members of the UM team
The U-M team with feet on the ground in Liberia! L->R: Maggie, Bri, Jasmine, Liz, and Melinda

Somehow, we lost Allisandra as soon as we got off the plane. IMG_8456 But the airport had only one gate, so we were pretty sure we would find her at some point. We all got through immigration and customs with no problems (it might’ve helped that we had USAID prominently duct taped to all our boxes).

We were reunited with Allisandra outside, who had been rescued by Sahithya and Edith, who had been waiting outside with the bus we would be using for the camp. We also bid farewell to Allison, who unfortunately had to cut her trip short to return home to be with her family (see Allison and Sahithya’s post about the L-SWE Advance Team!).
With all our luggage packed on the bus, we rode into the sunset (literally!)

back of a truck at nightOn a personal note, it was surreal for me to finally be on Liberian soil. After having traveled to Sierra Leone in 2013, being back in region felt like returning to a familiar place. The air, the trees, the houses, the people– it all seemed so comfortable, as if I had never left. I hardly felt like I had left the US, although the palm trees and “Ebola is real” signs everywhere beside buckets of soap and water indicated otherwise.

We picked up several of the Liberian students on the camp planning committee on our way to our campground.

“Boss Lady” Edith picks us up at the airport in the L-SWE bus

Sara and Sahithya greeted old friends, and some people who had become Facebook penpals got to meet each other for the first time. The UM team was dead-tired after our long trip and the time difference, but the Liberian girls were so excited that it gave us a tiny bit of energy (but, I’ll admit, I fell asleep during the ride.) After dark, we finally came to our camp site, the Peace Corp Training Center in Kakata, a suburb of Monrovia.

The kitchen ladies were patiently waiting for us, with dinner hot and ready. Delicious spiced chicken, plantains, and green salad awaited us, with a side of pepper sauce. We all dug in as if we had starved for days, and finished up *convinced* that, if nothing else, the next 3 weeks would be delicious.
After dinner we got a short orientation around the Peace Corp campus and stashed our bags in our rooms. For all the families of the UM team reading, this is a NICE PLACE!!! Comfy dorm style rooms fit 12 girls each, 2 bathrooms with hot water, showers, and pressurized toilets, plenty of “pure” drinking water (cool for drinking & hot for tea), and most importantly for this generation– reliable power and wifi. The enclosed campus contains the dorm, a dining hall, housing for the staff, a classroom, a couple gazebos for outdoor lounging, and plenty of green space for outdoor activites, and– most importantly for our beloved parents–  24 hour security guards to keep your babies safe.
After our orientation, most of us, myself included, impatient for the hot water took cold showers and it was lights out on our first day. Sara and Sahithya, ever diligent, stayed up for a couple more hours to do some logistics planning. We were expecting to hit the ground running, with the first batch of Liberian camp participants arriving the next morning at 11:30am.
See how Day 1 goes in our next post!

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.

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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