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.