There was a lecture I attended before at the Mabuhay Temple about finding your place in the world. I remember shifu reminding us the importance of knowing one’s value to help determine where you will place yourself in this complex world. Seven years later, I still struggle with finding my place.
Others will find it surprising that I am writing about this topic. Many people know about my advocacy and how passionate I am about it. But now that HEED is growing, the question of where to place myself and the group becomes even more pressing.
Do I place myself in engineering? Here I am expected to do technical research. Publish papers. Attend scientific conferences. Teach engineering. I learned to do these things in undergrad and grad school. I did well. My mentors expected me to thrive. But there was always something missing. There was always that tug in my heart from the creative side.
Do I place myself in the world of design? I love creating. I was the type of kid who would make my own toys from scrap materials when my parents refused to buy me something I like from the toy store. I was the type of student with high regard to aesthetics. The lay-out of a report, the font, the graphics, everything must be beautiful. I used to spend hours a day designing my blog and, eventually, my personal website, HEED’s website, and DMMME’s website (all works in progress, lol). I’ve created several mini-books I give to friends just because I love writing and graphic design. I love Lego and building various things with it — syringe pump, automated dog-feeder, robots, etc. Doing creative work always gives me a high.
I tried integrating my love for design with my academic work as a materials engineer. I advocated strongly for product design in our department and, eventually, in our college. It seems to be working, but I do get frowned upon sometimes because there is still that impression that product design is not “technical” enough. But I think the real issue is why design and engineering are separate in the first place (at least in the Philippines)?
I experienced this disparity recently when I accepted two high school interns in FDI — the design group I started in DMMME. At first everything seemed okay. Our visiting professor even commented during the HEED design sprint, “I’m impressed with the high school students. This is such a great experience for them!” But as our interns were presenting in the culminating ceremony yesterday, it hit me so hard how separate design still is from the so-called “technical” world. It’s like our interns did the right activity in the wrong venue. It’s confusing. I was so proud that in 10 days our interns were able to model several objects in Fusion 360 and SketchUp, do 3D printing, participate in a 2-day design sprint (where they worked in a very interdisciplinary team from other colleges, i.e. COE, CFA, and BA), attend a humanitarian engineering symposium, identify their own design problem and prototype a solution. But reality hits hard. Even though my students were the only interns with a tangible output, they did not do “scientific” work like other students. Even though I saw how amazing our interns did design-wise, the reaction I received left me feeling like I did something very wrong. Very, very wrong.
Do I place myself in community development? I strongly believe that meaningful work comes from doing something to better the lives of people. That’s why HEED was born. It integrates engineering with my inherent love for community development and design (I’m sorry if it sounds selfish T_T). But as HEED executive director, I have to be in neutral ground. I cannot wear my “engineering hat” when talking with other colleges. But without my “engineering hat” and with HEED not (yet) formally recognized by the university, where does that place me? Where exactly do I stand in the university?
More opportunities are opening up for HEED and for that I am truly grateful. But I guess growing pains are expected to be part of the picture. It’s like I’m in a crash course on leadership. I deal with people who are both younger and older than me. I write grant proposals for HEED on top of the grant proposals for FDI to “satisfy” what is expected of me in engineering. I design the course syllabus for the HEED elective on top of managing the MatE curricular revision. People expect more from the group now that we are branching out to other universities. More community project opportunities are coming in, but I am still expected to do “technical research” on top of all this because HEED is “just extension work.”
“You need an enterprise model for sustainability. Hire more people to do work for you.” I need to get a grip of that model immediately.
It can be very overwhelming and confusing. I feel like a little bit of everything. A little bit of an engineer. A little bit of a designer. A little bit of a social worker. But maybe that’s not really bad? Optimum ignorance, as my mentor said. Maybe I just feel weird because this is not yet the norm in the environment I’m in? Titles are still important in this environment. Engineer. Scientist. PhD. But today’s society is already ditching titles, right?
Don’t get me wrong. HEED will always be my passion. I guess we’re just in that phase where uncertainty is still very high. Where we’re still learning to effectively manage long-term interdisciplinary relationships. Where we’re still finding our place in the larger scheme of things. It’s very challenging, but my heart is hopeful and overflowing with gratefulness for all the support. Please be patient. We’re learning. :)