Society of Women Engineers hosts summer camp in Liberia

Thursday, September 24, 2015 - 6:07pm

The University's Society of Women Engineers has expanded — to Liberia.

Members of the society traveled to Liberia to host a two-week engineering leadership camp for female Liberian engineering university students. The camp, Setting Up Collegiate for Careers in Engineering through Social Support Camp, was held at the Peace Corps Training Facility at Kakata, Liberia.

A total of 40 students — five University Ph.D. candidates, five University undergraduate students and 30 Liberian undergraduate students from three different Liberian universities — participated in the summer camp.

Sara Rimer, an environmental engineering graduate student and one of the students who initially launched the student partnership between the University and the Liberian university, said the summer camp had several goals.

First, the camp aimed to help bridge the gap between the two groups of students, with the hope of fostering peer support for students from both countries working toward careers in engineering.

“We wanted a peer-to-peer network to develop that was cross-cultural,” Rimer said. “We noticed that international experiences are huge for (University) undergraduates, but a lot of them don’t necessarily have the peer aspect, where they go to another country and develop relationships with peers in that country.”

The cross-cultural networks also exposed participants to cultural similarities and differences between the United States and Liberia.

Engineering senior Breoshshala Martin said since she is African American, it was interesting to see how she and the Liberian students were similar but also different.

“The cultural differences weren’t something that I was used to, but there were some things that are similar to my culture back home,” Martin said. “There were things (the Liberian students) did that happened in my family and things they said that I say to my friends often.”

In addition, the camp provided hands-on engineering activities, which are not typically integrated into the curriculum at Liberian universities.

The University members also worked with the Liberian students in developing a SWE chapter at their school. Though Liberia-SWE was founded in 2013, events such as last year’s Ebola outbreak caused setbacks at the universities. Since 2013, the Liberian students have only had two semesters of five weeks each.

“Since 2013, their whole lives have been on a hiatus,” Rimer said. “Peers from the U.S. have a lot of experience and have successfully ran the organization, so they can provide perspective, ideas and advice as input.”

Overall, the camp focused on helping Liberian students acquire life skills that are not taught in their classroom, such as professional development, Rimer said.

Edith Tarplah, a University of Liberia junior and L-SWE president, wrote in the University’s graduate SWE blog that the leadership camp has been like a “miracle” for her and other female Liberian engineering students, especially because it is difficult being a female engineering student in Liberia.

“It is difficult to be a female student in Liberia, yet alone say an engineering female student,” Tarplah wrote. “Having other female engineering students giving up their time to come to Liberia to encourage and promote networking amongst engineering student and professionals, giving students the opportunity of having a one-on-one conversation about their field of studies and how things actually work in the real world is a miracle.”

Rimer said SWE plans to continue to foster the relationship with the Liberian students with hopes that this relationship will serve as a model for other cross-cultural connections.