On Learning How to Fly

“Sometimes you just have to take the leap and build your wings on the way down.”
― Kobi Yamada

It’s actually happening. When the first speaker pubmat was published this evening, when I read the answers of the people who registered for the event, when I looked at the HEED Facebook page and saw that the posts are reaching thousands of people now. I didn’t know how to feel. I stared at my computer screen for a long time. I couldn’t believe it. It was real. Suddenly, I found myself in tears. I cried because I was so grateful and happy and scared and excited all at the same time. 6 years. There is overflowing gratefulness in my soul right now.

I am grateful to the Universe for giving this opportunity. For giving me patience and stubbornness, because without these I would have given up on this advocacy a long time ago. When I was laughed at in front of 120 people for pitching my social enterprise. When some people close to me thought I was crazy for prioritizing community service over the more “prestigious” side of engineering. The Universe granted me stubbornness when I couldn’t find anyone (yet) with the same passion to support my idea of establishing a humanitarian engineering program in our beloved university.

I am grateful to UP students. They were the first ones who listened and took notice of my advocacy. It was my students who showed genuine passion for the idea of service-learning and humanitarian engineering. They showed their passion through fearless action. For every project they showcased to either a public high-school student or another college or the public, I saw how they went the extra mile by doing things beyond what was required of them. They owned each event. They owned each project. Even if the challenge was huge and it was their first time doing it, they faced it. And seeing that fearless passion kept me going. They gave me hope that HEED had a chance of becoming a reality.

Now, the tide has finally turned. The University heeded the call by granting us money for HEED 2017. A college (hopefully two colleges by next week!) heeded the call by endorsing the event. And of course, two student organizations also heeded the call, showing that signature Iskolar ng Bayan passion in making this event a reality.

My adventures for the past 6 years flashed back as my tears fell this evening. The long boat ride to Culion and its neighboring islands that opened my eyes to a harsh reality. The long bus ride to Penn State, the long train ride to D-Lab, the first GHTC conference I attended in Seattle, every interview I had with anyone who has done or is doing humanitarian engineering work to get whatever knowledge I can from their experiences. Every letter I wrote, every proposal crafted, every email sent. I remember how I used to do technically everything on my own for HEED, to protect my idea from being laughed at again. To prevent people from telling me to forget about HEED because it was too idealistic. But now, as I looked at each pub that comes out, each message in our HEED FB group, I tell myself, “It’s okay. You no longer have to do this on your own. You can share HEED with others now. There’s a big chance people won’t laugh anymore because circumstances have changed. Trust that they will listen this time.”

I know that we are just starting and there is still a lot of work ahead of us after the Symposium. It actually scares me a lot, what happens after the symposium. But seeing how HEED learned to fly when it took a leap 6 years ago, and with the people supporting it now, I am confident that it will continue learning to fly higher and farther as more people join the movement with fearless passion for action. :’)

#HEEDtheCall

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Silent Sounding Board

It feels weird sometimes. I’ve been in engineering for a little more than a decade now, eleven years to be exact, but from time to time the question still pops out: What am I doing here?

Before entering college, I remember my father asking me what course I wanted to take. “I want to be a scientist to help people,” I responded vaguely. He asked what type of scientist I wanted to become and how I intended to help others. I didn’t know (hey, I was just in high school! I feel quite sorry for the youth who are in K-12 now; they have to decide early on which track they are going to take!). Anyway, I ended up in engineering. There were times when I felt that it was perfect for me, especially last year when I worked in a chemistry lab. Oh boy did I really tell myself that I was meant for engineering! I was the one making contraptions or 3D-printed set-ups for some of my polymer chemist lab mates and I absolutely enjoyed doing it. I would sketch out ideas, do some basic 3D modeling, disassemble stuff, assemble stuff, etc. That has always been my general idea of an engineer: someone who designs and builds stuff that people can use to make life better or easier. But society would constantly dictate things from time to time that would really influence the way we think. In academia, for example, there’s this idea of prestige.

I was fortunate to be able to publish papers during my one year stay in the US last year. Over there, paper is prestige and papers come out quickly. My adviser gave me the impression that being able to publish as first author in a high-impact journal was a big accomplishment (maybe it is, but it took some time for that to sink-in). When I came home, I realized that I almost had the same number of publications as some of our returning PhDs. “Holy crap,” I told myself, “so it is an accomplishment.” By April another one of our papers was accepted for publication, and I’m finishing another one, which should be submitted by June. “I’ll have more papers than some of our PhDs if all of this come out this year. This is insane.”

Ego started kicking in. There were two arguments in my mind. On one hand, my mind is saying, “Go apply for a PhD immediately. If you can publish at least three papers in one year, imagine how many papers you’ll have after four to five years of PhD training!” But the other side of my brain is saying, “What’s the PhD for? You’ve proven that you can publish papers of equal number, if not more, without the degree. Why spend five years in a lab if you can spend that time doing projects for your advocacy?”

My advocacy. The thing that changed my life for the better. My commitment to my advocacy was tested last April. I was offered a PhD position in the UK. The voice in my head telling me to apply for PhD was suddenly in full throttle. I came up with my own dissertation topic in about a week with the guidance of my prospective advisor. But somehow something didn’t feel right inside. The topic was absolutely new to me and not connected with my advocacy; I just tailored it in such a way that it became related to some of the projects I worked on in the department. I realized how the entire process just seemed so forced. I also didn’t feel excited. I didn’t get the same “high” I got when I visited MIT’s D-lab last year or when I conversed with Penn State professors about their HESE program. It was as if I was just applying because I didn’t want to waste the opportunity and because it was “cool” to apply for a PhD in the UK (plus it was under a prestigious scholarship, too!).

After much thought, I declined the offer. The professor was kind enough to understand. That PhD offer was probably a temptation, something to test how strong my commitment to my advocacy is. I knew a university in the US where every single thing they do seemed to be aligned with what I want. My resolve got stronger to apply to that university after declining the UK offer. So all was decided then. I’ll take the GRE. I’ll take the IELTS. I’ll apply this Septemeber.

Then Makers ShowUP happened.

Makers ShowUP is the maker fair organized by my Additive Manufacturing elective class.  By God’s grace, it was a huge success! It wasn’t perfect, but was very much successful in achieving the goal of connecting with makers within and outside UP as well as promoting the maker movement to the public. Makers ShowUP connected me back to the UP College of Fine Arts (CFA), specifically their Fab Lab and Ceramics Studio. I have always enjoyed visitng CFA. Their grounds are filled with artworks of different kinds and everyone always seems to making something interesting! This was also the first time I knew someone from the Industrial Design program. Oh and what fun they seem to have! I realized that my general definition of engineering somehow fits into what they do as well, they design and build stuff (without excessive math!)! Hence the question, “what am I doing in engineering?” I asked this question so many times now that I think I know the answer: my advocacy. Humanitarian engineering (HE) is why I am in engineering. As long as I don’t see HE institutionalized/formalized in the Philippines, then my mission as an engineer is not yet done.

So now I’m fortunately in a good place. I can be a materials engineer who has connections with the maker movement, which allows me to do what I enjoy (making stuff!), while working on my advocacy. This was really the semester when I felt that work and play actually intersected. I would come to class and have Tinker Thursdays or we would build a boat (a life-size one!) or create concrete pavers, etc. Ideas for collaboration and projects are already popping in my head, which brings me back to the question: How about PhD? If I start a long term project in this direction, I won’t be able to leave for PhD.

I guess I’ll just push through with the application in my dream school and see where I go from there. And while I’m at it, I need to constantly remind myself to watchout for the noises in my head telling me to go for prestige rather than what gives me meaning.

You know where you’re going. Stay on track.

On Collaboration

What Steve Jobs said about only being able to connect the dots looking back is definitely true. There were times since 2011 when I felt that I wasn’t going anywhere with my advocacy, or that I was going too slow. But things seem to be coming together now. I know that it’s not permanent and there will be time again for doubt and reflection (which is not altogether bad, I realized there is a need for that). For now, we should make the most out of the opportunities coming up. Opportunities to connect with other departments, institutes, colleges, and universities. May we be able to play our cards wisely to maximize everything for everyone, i.e. faculty, students, and institutions alike. As always, I don’t know where all this is going. Nevertheless, times have taught us to just dive into the uncertainty with a spirit of excitement and joy and curiosity and gratefulness (and lots of hard work!). Let’s go DMMME! :)

#engineeringeducation #engineering+art #design #materials