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. :’)



A Post For Engineering

Today I attended one of the most inspiring classes I took in my entire UP life. It was in our Graduate Seminar course and our teacher invited a professor from the College of Fine Arts, Prof. Joey Tanedo, to talk about the basics of the creative process to aid us in making our video requirement for the said course. Sir Joey was amazing for many reasons, but I was especially ecstatic when he started the lecture by saying that the common notions that engineers are not good in art and artists are not good in math are not true and these ways of thinking were only products of the industrial revolution. FINALLY!!!! I heard an actual teacher say in front of engineering students and teachers that he agrees with Sir Ken Robinson’s concept! Let me share why this means a lot to me.

First, you have to watch this video (if you haven’t already). I remember telling some people about our outdated educational system, which is based on the industrial revolution and although they did not downright oppose it, they ignored it, which is probably worse than opposing an idea. Honestly, I did not feel (at least not strongly) that anything was wrong with our educational system, specifically in engineering education, until I entered grad school. From a student’s point of view, it can be excruciatingly frustrating to suddenly realize that:

  • an MS engineering degree today does not equip you to do things outside industry and academe;
  • there are teachers today who would tell students that you go to graduate school just to get the degree (a teacher actually said this to me);
  • there are people who are close to you who you’d thought would support your dream, but instead would tell you, “Anong gusto mong gawin? Community service? Ipagpapalit mo ang engineering sa community service?!” I became silent and just smiled at this person to hide my feelings as her words crushed my heart.

Yes. I want to do community service.

No. I will not give up engineering for community service because I believe that engineering is, in itself, a form of community service.

It’s called humanitarian engineering and that is my dream: to be a humanitarian engineer in the Philippines– one who doesn’t work in industry, but works with industry and academe to uplift the life of people by doing applied research projects that do not get stuck on paper and simply stacked in the library. Here’s an excerpt from a lengthy letter I wrote to a professor early this year showing my frustration in grad school:

[…] I understand that technological development takes time and is essential in the progress of our country. However, I also believe that while it is true that the nation needs engineers who would develop nanocomposites, biomaterials, and other advanced materials and processes, the nation also needs engineers who would address urgent matters that plague people now, to enable them to live more comfortably while they wait for new technologies to emerge.
For instance, the Philippines experiences typhoons every year. But year in and year out we encounter the same problems one of which is lack of emergency shelters, which results in chaotic evacuation centers. I did a random search in OPAC and found that there were only two theses (both dated 2002) on emergency shelters from the college of architecture, and one from the college of fine arts. I was surprised that there seems to be no record in the library of an emergency shelter thesis from the college of engineering where we have civil engineers who could design and materials engineers who could pick out the best materials for such a structure.

Even though I know what I want to do as an engineer, I am having a hard time doing it because I do not know where to start. Even so, I consider UP as a good starting point because it is a state university, which is meant to serve the people. It currently frustrates me, however, to know that by the time I earn my MS degree, my current thesis topic would most likely end up just being stacked in the archives section of the library with no one benefiting from it directly in the next five, ten, or more years. :( Perhaps I am saying all these because I am too idealistic or because of my limited understanding and experience in research? If so, kindly enlighten me.

Recently I learned about an island in Quezon called Jomalig where you will find the most malnourished children in the Philippines. One of the reasons for malnutrition is that the people of Jomalig cannot plant vegetables because of its geographical conditions. As I was watching the documentary, I couldn’t help but imagine what positive changes could happen in Jomalig if a group of engineers came there to add value to their way of living. Engineers could probably introduce a protected cultivation technology, which is practiced in some parts of Leyte to protect crops from weather conditions and other environmental factors.

Some people will argue that there is not enough funding for such projects. I think money is a ridiculous excuse for not realizing a dream. Yes, it will be hard to raise money, I agree with that. But difficulty is different from impossibility. It is possible to raise money for humanitarian engineering projects. Kawil tours of Culion island in Palawan was able to raise around 350k in 45 days just through crowdfunding. Now they have their own boat to connect their wonderful island to more people. For-profit and non-profit organizations have their ways of fundraising. Why can’t we apply them to engineering as well? Who said that research projects can only be funded by the government and funding agencies alone? Can’t crowdfunding supplement existing funding bodies in engineering? I think it can.

It is now 1am and I am writing this blog entry instead of writing my thesis because I am hoping that more engineers would be aware and open to the idea that there is another road to take aside from industry and academe. Let me clarify that I have nothing against people in industry and academe. I simply want to point out that there is another option for future students, but current educational systems do not train engineers for that option, which requires a lot of non-technical skills such as management and communication to name a few.

I am only a student with very little experience and I have nothing else but my visions and dreams to back me up for now. But I do hope, even if you believe I don’t have enough credibility to write these words, that somehow this blog entry sparked curiosity in you if that humanitarian engineering road is indeed true.

The Philippines is composed of more than 7,000 islands inhabited by millions of people struck by poverty. We can do more for them as engineers.

Yes, we can do more.

*Recommended reading and watching:
  1. The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering for the New Century
  2. Changing Education Paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson

If you share the same thoughts and feelings about humanitarian engineering and would want to talk about it more, please do let me know by leaving a reply below. ^_^   I would love to hear from you, dream with you, and, who knows, maybe even work with you to achieve that dream! :)