I have always felt the calling of Mother Nature. It has never been particularly strong, but it has always been present. As I grew up, perhaps I had pushed it aside to follow in the dreams of my parents, who stressed a life of financial stability and personal growth. After the hardships they faced growing up, they wanted to ensure that I would not endure the same struggles and thrive in modern society.
Only recently have I realized the loss of focus on my own goal.
When I first declared electrical engineering, I was never truly set on becoming an engineer. Yes, I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and the practical and theoretical mix of work, but something was missing. I knew what I wanted to do with my life and where I wanted to be, but I lacked a clear path towards my end goal.
I wanted (and still want) to combat climate change, but telling people I was interested in the environment consistently led to discussions on the topic of renewable energy, and I slowly embodied everyone’s thoughts and this idea began to define who I was.
In everyone’s mind, I was to use electrical engineering, create power systems, and somehow save the world by only implementing solar and wind. This was unrealistic and not who I wanted to be. But it was what everyone saw in me.
At the same time, even going along with everyone’s perception of me, I realized that I lacked action behind my words. I was a fraud, and this needed to change.
Declaring a double-major with environmental science proved as an outlet to help me come to terms with my identity (as I’ve mentioned in my introduction). I found myself diving headfirst into anything related to sustainability. I went on an immersion trip to Appalachia to learn more about coal mining and environmental injustice. I joined the Center for Sustainability and worked hard to make an impact on our campus through any means possible. I started a Solar Regatta team to teach people more about the intersect of renewable energy and engineering, interned at a solar company and at an engineering consulting firm to further the development of power systems, and recently began an internship at a utility company. Yet, throughout all this, I still felt like a fraud.
Tree planting through the Center for Sustainability (Source: Center for Sustainability)
I kept ignoring the voice in my head. The one that made me passionate about the environment in the first place. I had the urge to do something and to do it well. I was tired of having this dream of helping the world, but when it came down to it, I couldn’t follow through. I needed something new. Something to turn my cynicism into hope and to remind me what life truly means. Something that showed that people aren’t self-obsessed and stressed about the minute details of life, but to create a vision of the world that they want to live in.
Luckily, Global Social Benefit Fellows (GSBF) was that something.
(read more about that here)
Having a momentary existential crisis? (Source: James Wang)
Applying for the fellowship was a last-minute decision. I had originally decided to intern once again at the same engineering consulting firm due to the lack of engineering-related projects provided through GSBF, but I realized almost too late the value of this program. This was an opportunity to broaden my horizons, explore social entrepreneurship (I had previously taken a class in high school about entrepreneurship and hated it, so I was a little scared to try again), and learn more about creating the impact that I was dying to achieve.
Yet, even after being accepted, I continued to question my decision.
When I told people that I was going to Zambia this summer, I received mixed reactions. Some of awe and support, others of fear and ignorance, and there were others who simply disapproved of my life’s path.
One remark haunted my decision: “Are you even a real engineer?”
Now, this may not seem too complicated. Many reading this might respond, “Of course you’re an engineer. You’ve taken the right classes, you’ve had a few internships, research opportunities, and participate in engineering clubs. Why wouldn’t you be one?”
Well, think about it this way. Here I am, a student who is so passionate about wanting more out of his life that he abandons a highly technical internship to undergo a fellowship that has little to no connection to engineering whatsoever. I’m “throwing away” my future to take part in a summer trip where I will not gain the same skills as I would at a company. Taking this class has a time conflict with other electrical engineering classes that would make me more qualified to be a designer, so instead, I’m on the path towards sales engineer at best, which apparently, would make me not a “real engineer.”
Wow. I truly struggled with this statement. Sure, I had come into college not really knowing or wanting to be an engineer, but after three years, it had grown on me. It was the first thing I told people when they asked me to introduce myself. It was my second skin. I had been a dorm counselor for a summer program (S.E.S.) educating high school students about what it was like to be an engineer. I gave tours every week to prospective students to show them what it was like to be an engineer. I had dived headfirst into engineering with the full intention of becoming an engineer, but suddenly, people were telling me that I wasn’t real.
It was an identity crisis. If I wasn’t an engineer, then who was I?
I found my answers throughout my journey in Zambia. I saw firsthand how beneficial an engineering product could have on the lives of so many people, but also the importance of even having the engineering mindset that I developed studying engineering. It helped me discern some of the problems within the agent trainings by being detail-oriented. It helped me optimize visuals and graphics within the sales manual, create schedules to ensure efficiency at work, and even with conflict resolution by rationally listening and explaining both sides of the story. I learned that being an engineer is more than just creating products. It is about fostering a problem-solving mindset to do good and help people.
Engineering is like a social enterprise, regardless of the classification, what really matters is the intention. I had the intention to create change with my engineering degree, and I slowly came to terms with being an engineer, or at least not being the stereotypical engineer.
Interviewing one of the sales agents
And in this, I learned to appreciate that there are so many opportunities in life that we don’t need to just focus on only being good at one thing. We’re not trained for assembly lines, but to use our minds and think creatively. Sure, maybe we don’t know what our true interests are or where we may end up in 10 years, but we know what we like to do and what we want to do. If we understand that our passions can all be interconnected, then we have achieved what we set out to do.
I know this is a simple lesson, but it has had profound impacts on my future. Before the fellowship, I had always considered following the engineering route and seen myself as just another engineer who dabbles in sustainability, but now, I’m excited to learn more about different opportunities within the realm of sustainability with my engineering mindset to enable success.
College, especially Santa Clara University (though I cannot speak for other colleges since I have only ever attended SCU), spends a lot of time focusing on the individual. What is your mental health status, how stressed are you, and what can you do to move forward in your life? We are rarely ever asked the bigger questions about who we want to be in the world, so we forget to think about ourselves in the bigger picture. I’m not saying that we should neglect who we are, but I believe that finding ourselves requires more external action rather than internal self-reflection. Like Gandhi says (which doubles as my favorite quote): “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
The meaning behind this quote has truly helped me come to terms with my idnetity. Throughout my youth, I volunteered consistently, and that gave me a purpose. Talking with people and seeing the reactions on their face as I provided a simple meal or helped a child with homework made their and my day a hundred times better. But the ambiguity of my own future and the need to finalize it within four years of college put me at a standstill, where I focused more on my own development rather than on addressing the needs of others.
Coming back from this fellowship provided this mental break that I needed. Throughout my journey, I met so many inspirational people—peers, mentors, and Zambians—who all reminded me to be my unapologetic self. That smiling at strangers was not creepy. That being optimistic didn’t make you a dreamer. That sometimes, a conversation with an open mind and an open heart is all that is required. I truly enjoyed being able to be present and interact with the people I was helping, and I can honestly say my heart is a little bit fuller.
Lying on the mattress on the way to Shiwang’andu
I remember lying down on a mattress in the back of a truck on our way to Shiwang’andu from Mpika. Drew and I had begun talking about how all the upcoming and popular movies were about superheroes. We discussed how our culture continually looks for a savior in times of need, with people projecting concerns onto others, hoping that one person can create the change, so the rest of us remain complacent. Drew noted that social enterprises don’t focus on the individual, but rather on encouraging everyone to step up and become their own superhero.
Before, I had always envisioned business as an evil entity to exacerbate planned obsolescence and consumerism, the work we did showed that business can and should create social value (echoed in Laudato Si). After reading Poor Economics and Getting Beyond Better, I had already really liked the concept of social entrepreneurship, but Drew’s statement at that moment resonated with me. The entrepreneurial mindset was not taking advantage of others but engaging them in the world.
Group of sales agents trained in Kasama and the future for VITALITE
Looking back at these past nine months, I feel both pride and sorrow. Pride at all the things that I have accomplished, learned, and experienced, but sorrow at no longer having this class and seeing all the amazing people who went on this journey with me. Although I never quite realized my transformation throughout the fellowship, as I write this, I finally understand how much I have grown and changed.
And although my future remains uncertain and my path somewhat undecided, I cannot wait to find my place, knowing that we are not limited by our major or our skills, but by the passion and dedication we hope to bring.
Sunset on the Zambezi
In true engineering fashion, here are some TENTATIVE markers of success for me within the next ten years:
(1 year from now) Carry out Fulbright research in France OR find a sustainable company to work for
(2 years from now) Develop a useful product
(3 years from now) Apprentice at a bakery, while working in a sustainability-related career
(4 years from now) Earn another degree, potentially in something related to the interconnection of technology, environment, and sustainability
(6 years from now) Pursue geoengineering (now referred to as climate change intervention strategies)
(8 years from now) Work with a social enterprise (or multiple) to travel through different countries in West Africa to address needs and encourage participation