One day, nearing the end of high school, Adele van der Winden thought to herself: if only there was a Doctors Without Borders, but for people who like maths and physics. Not long after, she heard about Engineers Without Borders. A spark was lit!
Adele’s dedication to social justice started at home. Her mum has been her role model for compassion, generosity and understanding. At high school she found herself attracted to extra-curricular activities that had a social justice focus. She felt that whatever her future career might be, it was important to incorporate her values into it.
“I have a lot of privilege in receiving the education and life experiences that I’ve had, and continue to have. This means that situations where people face obstacles in seeking these same human rights and education stand out as huge injustices to me and I want to be involved in addressing these issues.”
When Adele realised that she could combine the subjects she enjoyed with her passion for fairness, it sealed the deal. She knew that engineering was for her.
Engineering a social justice mindset
Adele stepped into university wanting to learn how she could integrate her Civil Engineering degree with social justice. That desire meant she was quick to become involved with EWB.
In her first year at the Queensland University of Technology, she took part in the EWB Challenge and joined the QUT Chapter. The next year, Adele took part in EWB’s Design Summit in Cambodia. It was her first taste of humanitarian engineering, and she was hooked. The Design Summit introduced Adele to students and mentors who shared her vision and was, in Adele’s words, a “formative experience”.
“I learned and grew a lot, surrounded by like-minded and very intelligent students and mentors, and got my first taste of humanitarian engineering,” reflects Adele.
Adele has been a dedicated volunteer with EWB and has also taken on important roles inside the QUT Chapter. She became the fundraising coordinator for the chapter in 2018, and continued as part of the executive team the next year. This year, she is capping off her studies as a Research Challenge participant. She views her involvement with EWB as a rounded learning experience.
“Being involved with EWB throughout my degree has been a huge motivator for me. I learnt about the existence of humanitarian engineering and appropriate technology, then about the need for each, then the application of each, then about how I could make a career involving these two things.”
In the second half of 2019, Adele packed her bags and set off for Canberra. ANU had just launched a humanitarian engineering minor, and she thought it would be perfect for her. She took the course as an intensive and became one of first to complete a formal humanitarian engineering minor at an Australian university.
Adele’s time at ANU gave her a broad knowledge base of humanitarian engineering. She learnt design approaches, appropriate technology and the ins and outs of Australia’s overseas development programs.
Beyond the engineering subjects, she also took subjects in sociology and social sciences. This gave her an understanding of the fundamental issues that underpin the need for humanitarian engineering. These subjects provided contextual, non-technical knowledge, which Adele says isn’t always readily available to engineering students.
“They encouraged me to cultivate the critical thinking skills needed to understand the complexities and challenges of development, unpack global issues such as climate change and poverty, and really made me consider where my place – as someone hoping to work in this field – might be.
I strongly feel these skills would greatly benefit all engineering students; and I would love to see more universities teach humanitarian and sustainable engineering,” reflects Adele.
Follow this Fellow!
Adele’s impressive resume of volunteer work and her outstanding mindset were recognised when she received an EWB Influencer Fellowship for 2021. The Influencer Fellowship supports final-year students who have displayed exceptional drive and commitment to using their skills to address social justice and sustainability.
Adele’s remarkable passion for environmental and humanitarian engineering saw her become one of three inaugural recipients of the ‘Influencer for Peace’ Scholarship. The Fellowship compliments her undergraduate honours thesis project, which is looking at using technology to prevent human trafficking in refugee camps.
The Fellowship is the perfect opportunity to build on her skills and help her pursue her dream career. The Influencer Fellowship has not only been an invaluable learning experience for Adele, it has also provided an opportunity to reflect.
“The Fellowship has helped me to examine the opportunities and imperfections within the humanitarian engineering sector – and engineering sector in general – which has helped inform my understanding of what engineering should and could be.”
A vision for the future
While Adele hasn’t settled on her exact career path, she is crystal clear on its direction. Her experience at university and with EWB has made her certain that environmental and humanitarian engineering is for her.
“The skills I gained from my minor, and the skills I am currently learning from the EWB Influencer Fellowship, I believe, will be abundantly formative in helping me choose and navigate my career path.”
Looking to the future, Adele is hoping to see the experience of women in engineering improve. She’d like to see more girls being encouraged to take up engineering and more women filling leadership positions. She wants to hear the voices of women in STEM, from students to the most experienced, being heard, believed, and amplified.
“This is a change that is needed in Australia and is something we all need to play a part in,” she says.
Adele believes that through volunteering, you can influence others to stand up alongside you.
“Broadening the definition of engineering, including spreading the ideas that sustainable development and humanitarian engineering could form potential engineering career paths, is something I hope I have helped invoke in future and current engineering students.”
If you’re passionate about social justice and engineering, and would like to volunteer with EWB, you can sign up here.