During this whole summer, I have been reflecting on 1) what are my identities and 2) for these identities, what are the pros and cons of each.
It is actually difficult to list out the pros and cons of each because I find myself just listing stereotypes. For example with my identity of being a woman, I thought being a woman means that perhaps I’ll be pressured by society to put my career on hold to start a family? But it also could mean that society might value my opinion more in areas of emotional intelligence? These are all stereotypes.
I have the same dilemma when I think about the pros and cons of being Asian, but interestingly, at least until last week, I’ve never had a hard time coming up with a pro and con list for being an engineer. It’s probably because these was no con in my list. Being an engineer is the identity that I am proudest of because it is the one that I chose for myself—as opposed to being female or Asian, which are aspects that I had no control over. And because I chose and worked towards making engineering my identity, I never once anticipated that being an engineer could have downside.
In the last weekend before I fly back to the United States, the other girls with me in Cameroon and I had a discussion. They stated that engineers put in position of dealing with people sometimes do a terrible job because their engineering background does not equip them with the skills to understand humans and humanity.
I can’t explain why I was shocked. It makes sense that someone not trained to do something wouldn’t be good at it, but it was probably because I sincerely believed that engineers could solve any and every issue. And it’s not like I now don’t believe that engineers could solve anything—but what their talk really made me realize was how careless I was about deeply questioning myself and my perspectives.
I’ve discovered that after graduating from MIT and working in the real world, especially in areas where I am the only person trained technically, no one really questions, checks, or challenges the decisions I make. That is dangerous.
In my previous essays, I wrote about how I want to make an effort to bring positive social impact, but I don’t think I thought as hard about how to ensure social impact from a greater good for humanity point of view as from a technical perspective. I just always stressed to make sure that the physics would work in these real world situations and address the needs of the users from a purly practical aspect. And I believed that if I addressed the users’ physical needs, that would be my contribution to address humanity’s needs. That isn’t necessarily true, I’ve realized. I need to think both more purposely and purposefully about how my decisions might impact the society as well.
I feel physically uncomfortable as I realize that there are gaps in my engineering knowledge, but I believe this feeling is good. This feeling means that I know what I don’t know, and steps can be taken to improve myself.
It is time to leave Africa and return back to the United States. From my one month in South Africa and then my one month in Cameroon, it may be ironic that I feel mentally stronger even though I have discovered more and more things I don’t know and need to improve upon personally. However, I will always prefer to know what I don’t know versus don’t know what I don’t know. This summer was truly a summer of catching international flights and phenomenal feels. This summer, I truly embodied the mind of engineer and a heart of an alchemist—but I know that that isn’t enough, I need anthropology in my soul as well.
Trang Luu is a graduate student studying mechanical engineering. This summer, she completed two MISTI internships. In June, she worked with a NGO called AeT on improving cook stoves for mealies vendors in South Africa. In July, she worked with an agricultural start-up called CassVita on their manufacturing facilities to transform cassava into flour products in Cameroon.