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“Before I started volunteering at Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia, I could barely explain what my sister a Sustainable Systems Engineering student did. Although we are identical twins (with supposedly identical genetics) I chose the words rather than the numbers path, undertaking Arts/ Law with a Philosophy major. Studying together, I would look over to her computer and see a bundle of complicated shapes and numbers – so utterly foreign to the complicated language of law I was reading!”

Gretel Cannon, a self-confessed Non-Gineer, knew next to nothing about Humanitarian Engineering and the role engineers can play in creating positive social change. But with a sister studying the discipline, Gretel was motivated to volunteer at EWB Australia and something surprising happened. In her own words – not diagrams – Gretel explains…

“I began to realise the true meaning of the human in humanitarian engineering – EWB’s engineering philosophy that uses a people-centred, strength based approach to improve community health, wellbeing and opportunity. I learnt that engineering goes far beyond excel spreadsheets and can touch the lives of people living in poverty or disaster struck communities. I saw pictures of floating villages in Cambodia. At the Making an Impact Summit, an event held by EWB Australia, I heard presentations on female hygiene products designed for specific communities. Accordingly, the terms ‘Human-centered Design’ and ‘appropriate technology’ entered my vocabulary and I embraced my role as a non-gineer: someone without traditional engineering qualifications that is helping EWB ‘engineer a better world’.

One of the things that I really appreciated at EWB was the environment. When I walked into Dream Factory in Footscray I was immediately taken by the natural light shining through the large windows and the high ceilings. Looking through the windows, you can see a litany of shipping containers, cranes and generally impressive machinery: an Engineer’s dream. What’s more, terminology which usually brings fear into the veins of anyone in the corporate world (such as ‘billable hours’) was non-existent. Instead, around the office, in between hectic work schedules, you hear conservations involving feminist literature, hiking and ideas such as solar-cooked haloumi. This setting I attribute both to the organisation and the friendly and enthusiastic staff and volunteers.

I never had to worry about trying to fit in because I soon saw that EWB welcomed diversity and ‘non-gineers’ with open arms and many of the staff are, in fact, from a diverse range of backgrounds. Being a non-gineer in an engineering organisation taught me a lot about the skills I had gained studying Arts and Law. At EWB, my ability to type-touch minutes and my intuitive control over the English language (put to test by writing and editing policies and reports) was much appreciated by those with a more numbers brain.

Previously, I, like many other law students, had been enclosed in the bubble of legal rhetoric. I had been indoctrinated with a vocabulary that labelled all non-legal trained people ‘laymen’ and celebrated the alleged superiority of the legal profession. I assumed that pro bono work only took place within the legal industry, never realising the social impact of humanitarian engineering.

Learning about EWB’s recent partnership UNHCR Zambia, I came to the realisation that there are many different ways to tackle the same issue. While I had studied the UNHCR from a Refugee Law perspective, the designs that students developed as part of the first year university design challenge showed me how capacity-building projects work to fulfil basic human rights, in particular the right to an adequate standard of living. I saw that working in the Engineering world requires much more than an understanding of mathematics and numbers; it requires creativity, cultural awareness and communication skills. Engineer is afterall ‘the action of working artfully to bring something about.’

What I now realise and want to stress to all non-gineers and engineers out there is that you do not have to solely pursue opportunities in your field. Opportunities in other fields not only bring a lot to the organisation for whom you are offering time but also teach you a great deal about your own skill set. For me personally, the experience further ignited in me a passion for humanitarian work and shifted my focus away from the corporate world towards non-for-profit work. All in all, I am very grateful for the opportunity to get involved in such a wonderful ogranisation; it opened my mind to a world of possibilities and taught me that a lot about what every individual, engineer or lawyer, can do to combat humanitarian crises and issues.”