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One day in 2018, while spending part of her gap year volunteering as a teacher in Cambodia, Charli Fell’s career aspirations changed completely.

Charli had always wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. She thought the best way to do so would be to become a human rights lawyer, and was set to study Arts/Law. But a part of her was wishing there was a way she could pursue that passion in a more technical profession.

So, when she met then-EWB Australia volunteer Field Professional Jimi Metcalfe in Cambodia, and he told her about the way EWB Australia works with local communities, it was a life-altering moment.

“I discovered there was a way to follow my technical and scientific interests while also having that human and social justice element.”

Charli scrapped the Arts/Law plan and enrolled in engineering at Australian National University (ANU) instead.

Fast-forward four years and Charli’s passion for socio-technical engineering and impactful involvement with EWB’s ACT Chapter has now seen her win a $10,000 donation for EWB Australia from her employer’s charitable arm, as voted by her peers.

Seeing the similarities

In May, Women in GHD (WING) launched WINGs of Change – an internal competition that celebrates the impact of their staff in their communities. Charli and her colleagues were asked to nominate a cause they were passionate about and involved in that aligned with the GHD Foundation’s mission – the charitable arm of the organisation. Charli thought EWB would be a great match. In May this year, Charli was announced as one of the two winners from the Asia-Pacific region, meaning EWB Australia would be one of seven recipients worldwide. “It was all quite embarrassing, but very wonderful,” reflects Charli.

Looking forward, Charli has a clear vision for the impact of the donation. The donation will enable important, community-led work with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander communities to improve access to engineering, technology and infrastructure in order for those communities to thrive. It will also support overseas projects that develop the services and technologies that kids need to safely access education – like the development of ceramic water filters that provide access to safe drinking water for kids in Timor-Leste schools.

A celebration of dedication

Charli and Angus Mitchell, EWB Australia’s Technology Development Lead, celebrating the WINGs of Change grant.

The WINGs of Change competition celebrated staff involvement in their communities, and Charli’s history with the EWB ACT Chapter is undeniably impressive.

After that moment of discovery in Cambodia, Charli arrived at ANU and wasted no time joining the ACT Chapter. By her second week, she was Secretary – a position she has recently vacated after three and a half years.

“I’ve had some great friends teaching me the ropes along the way and now I get to show other people the ropes – which is great!”

Inspired by ANU professor and former EWB Australia staff member Jeremy Smith, Charli jumped at the chance to take humanitarian engineering subjects whenever they were offered. She took up two opportunities to be involved in project-based classwork on the solar trailer project – a collaboration between the Centre for Appropriate Technology, EWB Australia, ANU and other industry partners.

Charli at Nguuruu Farm during the Local Design Summit.

Charli had also been looking forward to taking part in the Humanitarian Design Summit, but the pandemic quashed those plans. Making an opportunity out of disappointment, Charli and the EWB ACT Chapter designed and delivered the Local Design Summit instead. Launched in 2022 on Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country, the Local Design Summit is an intensive practical learning experience featuring workshops, fieldwork, and design challenges centred around local First Nations engagement and the core disciplines of humanitarian engineering, decolonisation, and sustainable development.

Earlier this year, Charli won the Natasha Linard Scholarship for Women in Engineering and Technology – which is awarded by ANU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science to a female ANU student that has demonstrated a commitment to socio-technical issues through mentorship, encouragement, or application. She has pledged half of the scholarship money to help fund the continuation of the Local Design Summit.

“When I saw there was this scholarship for encouraging women in STEM and encouraging socio-technical engineering, I just felt it was the perfect fit and an opportunity to secure funding for the second iteration of the Local Design Summit.”

A renewable future

Charli has just set off for a year-long exchange in South Korea as part of the New Colombo Plan Scholarship Program. She sees the trip as an opportunity to improve her socio-technical engineering skillset.

“Engineering, technology and the tools around us are so shaped by our perspective, so I think the opportunity to learn another language and learn engineering from a different cultural perspective will be really worthwhile.”

In South Korea, Charli’s looking forward to taking electives in renewable energy and environmental engineering. While it’s still early days, this is where she sees her future. A career vision, Charli says, that was sparked in class with Jeremy Smith at ANU.

“My big interest area is accessible renewable technologies, and it’s funny because I think the solar trailer project was really what started that all for me.

I feel so grateful to have found passions, volunteering, a job, and a career that I find so fulfilling.”

In early 2023 Charli will go back to where it all started – travelling to connect with EWB Australia in Cambodia to see first-hand the work enabled by the donation.

If you’d like to support EWB Australia’s work, please donate here.