Tuesday, July 15, 2014

One student's summer adventures

My first Saturday here in Raleigh, North Carolina, I slept until 5 PM. No, I didn’t have mono; I was just severely jetlagged. Two days earlier, I had flown back to the United States from Guatemala. From the Philadelphia airport, I went straight to my hometown of Baltimore to pack for the rest of the summer. I proceeded to get two hours of sleep before waking up at 4 AM for my flight to Raleigh. Although those few days were crazy, my tendency to overextend myself has definitely paid off. This summer has been rewarding, exciting, and enlightening, and has helped to shape me as a person just like the past two semesters I spent at Penn.

If you had asked me six months ago what I thought I would be doing in the summer, I probably would have gotten a panicked look on my face. I had decided not to go back to my previous summer employment as a camp counselor in hopes of getting a job where I could apply what I had learned about computer engineering. I hoped that was the right decision, as I had doubts that I could get a meaningful position after only a year of college. I put all my spare time into my summer applications to prove these doubts wrong. I wanted to do research, so I applied to National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates. These programs are located all over the country and there are opportunities for just about every scientific or engineering discipline. I liked the idea of going to a different university for the summer and meeting students with different educational backgrounds. I also wanted to try research to see whether it was something I would want to pursue further. When the Interactive and Intelligent Media REU at North Carolina State University offered me a position doing computer science research, I was ecstatic. On top of that, I found out that I had been offered a spot to travel to Guatemala with Engineers without Borders. Ever since applying to Penn, I had dreamed of going on an Engineers without Borders trip and applying my engineering skills to serving others.

The view of the area around Pajomel, Guatemala after a hike up the mountain.

So right after finals ended, I was off to Guatemala, excited to explore a foreign country for the first time. The first few days were a whirlwind of new sights, sounds, and sensations. We drove down steep switchbacks in the fog in a van packed tight with 16 people and caught glimpses of the deepest lake in Central America, framed by the lush green mountains.

I played Frisbee and tried to communicate in Spanish with 9 year old girls who were holding their baby siblings on their backs in slings made of vibrantly colored fabric. Soon, the rest of the team and I settled into life in the rural village of Pajomel, where we worked each day carrying materials and mixing concrete in order to build latrines for families. I will never forget the day a few of my friends and I woke up before dawn to help a woman make corn tortillas. We carried a bowl of raw corn down to the mill to turn into cornmeal, then trekked back up the mountain to her home where we tried to imitate her dexterous manner of shaping the cornmeal into perfect circles and placing them on the stovetop over the fire. I gained a deep appreciation for the work ethic and community spirit of the people in Pajomel, and these traits made me rethink the value we place on material success and technological connectivity in the United States. Because of this trip, I know I want to continue to travel, and most importantly, to use what I learn as an engineer to help people and the environment.  

Me surveying a completed latrine in Guatemala with the help of an expert

When I got to Raleigh, I felt a bit lost at first. The fact that I would be away from home all summer was setting in, and summer has always been my favorite time to spend with my family and childhood friends. On top of that, it was hard being alone all of a sudden when the past few weeks I had become so close with everyone on the Guatemala team. Although we had been in a foreign country, we had experienced everything as a group, and at first I felt like the new things I was seeing in Raleigh weren’t even real if I couldn’t share them with the others in our end-of-the-day discussion.

                Luckily, I had my work to keep me occupied. The principal investigator in my lab let me choose my project, and I decided to work on developing an Android application for a study on the user experience on smartphones. I was given much more freedom than I expected, which was intimidating at first. I had to teach myself Android development through online tutorials and forum discussions. Now, though, I feel confident that I can teach myself any programming skill. This is critical in computer science, where the “hacker” culture values self-taught skills as much as those learned in classes. I love coming to work each day and learning new aspects of Android development. Recently, I have been working on getting my app to interact with Google Spreadsheets and Dropbox, and it is really rewarding to see the data that my app collects appear on a spreadsheet on another computer when I press a button. 

Meanwhile, I have started to feel much more at home here in Raleigh. I have made good friends here and explored the city with them. We spent the Fourth of July listening to live music at a street festival and then going to gallery openings. Raleigh has a vibrant arts scene as well as being part of the “Research Triangle,” which is known for tech and engineering innovation. It also has a growing startup culture. One of my friends brought me to a networking event at a startup accelerator, where I learned about ways that small local businesses and entrepreneurs are trying to change the world through tech. I was one of only two women at the event, but I felt confident that I belonged because of the confidence instilled in me by the supportive community of women in engineering I experienced at Penn.

If you are a woman pursuing engineering or just thinking about it, one reason to keep following your dreams is because it shows you that you really are capable of anything—of thriving in new places, making good impressions on new people, and learning new things. As an engineer you are consistently challenged but also given the resources to rise to the occasion, and you will become more confident than ever when you do succeed. Although I will be sad as this summer winds to a close, I know that being an engineer will give me opportunities to go to even more exciting places, and I can’t wait to take those chances.

 Nova is a sophomore in Computer Engineering.  Questions for Nova?  Email her at awe@seas.upenn.edu

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