Monday, August 27, is a national holiday in Liberia. We took the morning off in observance. In the morning, several of the UM students went to visit the market in Kakata to buy lappas (a term describing printed cloth used to make African clothes, usually sold in “lappas” or 1-yard lengths). Some students opted to lounge for the morning, sleeping, “lecturing” (casual conversation), or crafting SWE printed hairties for the group.
In the afternoon, our second engineering activity of the camp commenced! Sahithya introduced the Delta Design project, an imaginative housing design project set on a different planet. Each Delta Design team had members assigned the role of structural engineer, thermal engineer, architect, and project manager. The roles had complex tasks that they were trained to do for the team in order for each design to be the best. In comparison with the Bottle Rock project, the Delta Design project was intended for the students to work in interdisciplinary teams, where they had to work with and depend on experts outside of their own fields, communicate their results to others with potentially conflicting interests, and trust each other’s recommendations.
Students train according to their roles for the Delta Design Project
After a grueling afternoon of calculations, its was time for….
Dancing for Flag Day
Best day ever.
It was like… WOW.
*Bluffing: Liberian colloqua for walking around while looking good, and knowin’ it. 🙂
Sunday was a day of rest, and a field trip! In the morning, some students went to various places of worship around Kakata, and others stayed in for some welcome R&R. Around 1pm, we piled onto the L-SWE bus— it definitely brought us closer together!— and headed off to see the Bong Mines. Unfortunately, when we got to the mines, we found out they were not providing escorts to enter that day, so instead we drove to find a nearby river to picnic beside.
Our bus driver (a rare woman driver) was a master of navigating turns, steep hills and treacherously uneven roads. We had to empty the bus a few times for it to get up a particularly steep hill. But eventually we got to the river and, as would become the norm, it turned into a photo shoot.
L-SWE Photo Shoot at the River
It was a good day, and a nice way to close out the first week of the SUCCESS camp!
This is our first guest post from L-SWE! The author is Edith Tarplah, a junior student at University of Liberia and President of L-SWE.
People search for miracle in places they feel it might exist, but fail to realize that at the time the miracle they wish is starring them in the face.
Having a group of female engineers coming together despite their diversities in their field of study and in their lives as a person, to organize a camp that will mold minds and lives of undergraduate female engineering students in Liberia is like a long awaited miracle that many have searched for.
It is difficult to be a female student in Liberia, yet alone say an engineering female student. As a student you need series of activities in your school life that will encourage you to continue even though it is difficult to get funding, but instead you are faced with frustrations on a daily basis. These make you go to school because you have to, not because you want to.
Thus having other female engineering students giving up their time to come to Liberia to encourage and promote networking amongst engineering student and professionals, giving students the opportunity of having a one-on-one conversation about their field of studies and how things actually work in the real world is a miracle.
The big question is “Will students realize that their miracle is here? Or will they keep searching?”
Personally my journey of realizing my miracle started a few months ago when the UM graduate students came to Liberia for two weeks to build the foundation for the L-SWE SUCCESS camp. They organized a professional interactive dinner for engineering students and professionals which was a success. I got acquainted with many engineering professionals because of that dinner, who are people that I contact on a regularly to seek professional advice.
The organizers of the L-SWE success camp have made it a point to help students recognize opportunities and show them how to make maximum use of it. This is done through sessions and social activities amongst the students and supervisors. It is because of these sessions I got to know the difference between getting masters and a PhD ( something so common that one will laugh if they come to hear that a fourth year university student cannot tell the difference). It might be funny, but it is the truth. Through these sessions I have also learned that the root cause of the educational hazards in Liberia is the lack of funding. Due to the low funding, the Ministry of Education has to lobby around for funds before getting some of their projects implemented, which causes delay in the school system leading to a sub-standard curriculum.
Now that I know the root cause, I see and explain things differently.
The loads of information I’m gaining in this camp, gives me a whole new level of confidence to continue my studies and even aim for a higher goal. It has also helped me learn how to value myself and have a open mind about things that may come my way.
Thus L-SWE SUCCESS camp is my miracle I searched for. What is yours?
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.
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.
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.
After 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.
The 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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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”
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.
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.