Picture yourself as a kid, watching your parents clean the house. If you’re like most people, you couldn’t think of anything more uninspiring.
If you’re like Wenqian Gan, this is exactly what inspires a career. Growing up, Wenqian would watch her parents do chores with interest. Her parents would discuss the user-friendliness of the tools they used, and Wenqian would join in.
This nurtured mindset for user-centred design shaped Wenqian’s future. She wanted to take action on these first-hand learnings and create user-friendly household products. Not one to sit on her hands, she enrolled in engineering at the University of Sydney (USYD).
Challenging engineering’s status quo
Wenqian discovered that engineering’s dominant image as a technical, problem-solving profession was actually just one side of it.
When she developed a workshop that taught human-centred design through a research project with EWB, Wenqian saw the light. She discovered that engineering could be social and problem-defining. This was a side to the profession that fit with Wenqian’s desire for a better world for marginalised people. It changed her idea of engineering, and would inspire her future research.
Challenging the status quo of engineering has been a theme throughout Wenqian’s education. That theme has continued in her current PhD in engineering education research. Having grown up in Malaysia, Wenqian has first-hand experience as a female international engineering student in Australia. That experience made her reflect on the interplay between social identities and perceptions about engineering, and the diversity in pathways to engineering. Inspired to interrogate engineering identity further, she started her PhD at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2019.
As though completing a PhD isn’t enough to have on her plate, Wenqian is the 2020/2021 EWB NSW Region President. Which, she says, gives her a great excuse to meet, work with and learn from inspiring people.
“Being involved with EWB gives me an extended network to collaborate with and an additional window of perspectives, which are extremely useful as a researcher.
As Engineering Education is a significant part of EWB’s work, it complements my research on Engineering Education perfectly (in fact, I started doing research in this field because of EWB!).
There is such a huge overlap in the community I engage with and the topics I am interested in that it doesn’t feel like I’m doing two separate roles.”
Opportunity through shared vision
Wenqian’s first involvement with EWB came when she discovered the USYD Chapter in mid-2015. She didn’t know much about the organisation, but was excited to find a group of people that shared her values.
That discovery kick-started a busy journey with EWB. Wenqian’s involvement has included a trip to Cambodia for EWB’s Humanitarian Design Summit in 2016 and volunteering in EWB’s National Office. She is also four-time EWB Challenge Showcase attendee, where she has been a volunteer, a participant, and a two-time guest speaker.
In her first EWB role, as USYD Chapter Connectivity Coordinator, Wenqian worked to reduce the digital divide within the community. That role involved providing technical support with computer software and mobile applications for asylum seekers. This is when Wenqian first saw how she could apply her skills to make positive change in the community.
“As I got to know the organisation better, I was compelled by the organisation’s vision to create sustainable, lasting change. I could elaborate further, but essentially the organisational values and the people are what kept me engaged!”
As an EWB Research Program participant, Wenqian developed and ran a Makerthon for EWB’s Queensland Chapter. The Makerthon was designed as a local, refined version of EWB’s Humanitarian Design Summit, with the aim of encouraging human-centred design for community benefit. The workshop resulted in the generation of solutions to address challenges faced by people with cerebral palsy.
Strong personal foundations
Wenqian believes that appreciating life’s journey is important. Her personal philosophy centres around accepting that mistakes are part of learning and knowing that it’s okay to not be perfect. She says the Robert Louis Stevenson quote “judge each day not by the harvest you reap but by the seeds you plant” best sums up her approach to life.
“It reminds me of the importance of celebrating small successes and persevering for a long-term goal. These values are applicable to most aspects of my life – for example, taking small steps to write each week gets me closer to completing my PhD, and doing food prep at the beginning of each week saves me from running out of food and time mid-week!”
With a powerful social conscience at her core, Wenqian is passionate about inclusion and supportive communities for all.
“I am hopeful for a future where safe spaces are normalised for the marginalised (both physically and online), not because racist people or sexist remarks cease to exist, but rather because they are always surrounded by allies who will stop racial violence or call out sexist remarks.”
Wenqian’s biggest fear is not making the most of what she has right now – making time to catch up with family and friends, using her voice to speak up against injustice, and activating her power and skills to bring positive change.
Given her determination and vision, we don’t think she’ll have any trouble continuing to use her skills to create a more equitable world.
If you’re interested in challenging the status quo like Wenqian, and would like to volunteer at EWB, you can sign up here.