Monday, February 22, 2021

Left Out of Study Abroad

 A Story from Engineering Education

“SERVICE TRIP! Help design and construct clean water access in rural Angola.” 

I was so excited when the email popped up in my Inbox. Here it was -- an opportunity to apply my engineering skills to something close to my heart....

This was my junior year of college and I was well into my degree in civil engineering. I chose civil engineering so that I could fulfill my dream of work in overseas development - maybe with an NGO, the Peace Corps, or USAID. I chose the long hours, the constant studying, the problem solving --so I would be qualified and ready to go for this kind of opportunity. And here it was -- my first chance to pursue those dreams and to set myself up for similar positions after graduation. So, naturally, I jumped in...

A week later, I was sitting in the front row of a classroom, listening to two professors from my department describing the project that would require six weeks of the following summer. We would begin the program on campus with two weeks of intensive study: learning the hydrologic maps of the region, reviewing the current water supply technology in the villages we would visit, evaluating local resources for construction, making initial plans, and getting the bare basics about local language and culture. Then, we would travel together for a month, working on location to meet with residents and develop infrastructure improvement plans. If all went well, we would even get to put in some sweat equity, working alongside the residents to start bringing water access systems to life!

At the end of the presentation, I took notes of the application process the program in ridiculous detail. I didn't want to make any mistakes! I diligently gathered my application materials, including carefully writing and rewriting my essay about why I wanted to be a part of this internship. In some ways, this was easy -- I couldn’t think of a project that would be a closer match to my career (and life!) goals, and I had great grades and a record as a good team member. In other ways, this was hard -- getting into this program was so important to me that I kept second guessing myself and making edit after edit of my original essay. But, as the program deadline approached, I took a deep breath and pressed the submit button.

A month later, all my initial excitement about the Angola program washed over me again when I opened my email and spotted the subject line indicating the decision on my application. I opened the email, read, blinked, and reread it. But, "sorry we can't include you" was really there. All I could think was "Huh? What? No. Not possible. No way."

I couldn't believe it. What was going on? If I wasn't qualified to be a part of this team, then who was? I hadn't seen any inkling that my peers were more invested than I was in developing world opportunities for engineers. As in none. They talked more about six-figure jobs than heading out to countries with six-figure GDPs. There was just no way.

For several days I just stewed. But that wasn't getting me anywhere so I decided to go ask one of the faculty trip leaders about my application. I just had to know if there was any way to appeal the decision or expand the trip by one person. If only I could just plead my case in person. 

And, when I did, Professor Thompson actually greeted me enthusiastically:

“Emma, hi! Say, I just wanted to tell you how inspired I was by your essay on the trip application. You have such passion for developing villages.” 

This comment threw me completely off base. I was so stunned that I stopped dead in my verbal tracks All my carefully prepared speech was forgotten. Awkwardly, I said:

“Umm, thanks?” 

After what felt to me like a long, awkward pause, I gathered my wits:

“So, that's why I'm here, actually. I was hoping you could reconsider my application. Obviously you thought I would be a good fit for this project, so is there anything that could get you to reconsider including me?”

And then, a bad day got only worse. Prof. Thompson responded:

“Emma, this decision was in no way personal. The team leaders agreed that you were one of our top choices! However, when we considered the trip and travel arrangements, we were concerned. This trip will include some rough country - we will camp out together at times and there won’t be restrooms available. We also have some family homestays planned, with only one or two students per house. Even when we are in hotels, the budget requires 3 or 4 students to a room. There were only a few girls who applied and we just had a hard time deciding how many we would need to manage all the different accommodations throughout the entire trip. We just couldn’t think of a way to provide privacy and safety for young women, so we decided we couldn’t accept any of the female applicants. I am sure you understand how tricky this situation is. But don’t worry - your passion comes through clearly and I am confident that future employers will see that and find ways to involve you in these types of projects.”

Stupefied. Shocked. All I could say before my emotions got the better of me was:

“Oh, I see, well thanks for considering me.” 

Then, I turned and nearly ran for home. Even after a few hours, when the initial rush of emotions had worn off, I was still crushed. At a total loss. 

At some point in the chaos of all the things I was feeling about being so left out, the anger began. Who were these two men to decide for me what was an acceptable level of privacy and safety?  The travel route and village were safe enough for male students to travel but someone didn't think to ensure the safety of the other half of the species? I was good friends with several of the guys who had been selected for the project, and I knew it would be totally fine for me to share a tent or hotel room with them. These were good guys too. I knew they would protect me if any threat to my physical safety came up.  

The idea that I didn’t even get a say in what would be a workable plan left me fuming mad and feeling helpless all at the same time. I had experienced my share of paternalizing behavior but never to the extent that it kept me from getting the same opportunities as my male classmates. It wasn’t like I didn’t realize that civil engineering has way more men than women, but it had never really been a problem for me. I had frankly always thought of myself as “one of the guys.” 

For the very first time since I first considered engineering, I felt completely left behind. I wondered if I had made a big mistake in choosing engineering. Would my whole career be like this?

Have you had a similar experience to Left Out of Study Abroad or would you like to share a story, concern, or experience that relates to what you have just read?  Click here to share (all responses are private and kept confidential). 

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