Global Engineering helps to build a better world
The McGill chapter of Engineers Without Borders is encouraging students to see that there’s more to engineering than just building things. The group of 50 movers and shakers is bringing social responsibility to the heart of the McGill community.
It all dates back to a snowy day in 2001 when Alexandra Conliffe (BEng’04) was leaving the office of then-Dean John Gruzleski. She’d just finished explaining to the Dean how a brand new national organization called “Engineers Without Borders” might be worth taking a closer look at.
She’d had no expectations of setting up a McGill Chapter at that meeting. In fact she was heading out the door when Dean Gruzleski called out to her: “Alex, if this organization is going to do what you say it will do, eventually you’re going to need money. Make another appointment when you do.”
It was the enabling gesture funded from Alma Mater Fund contributions that allowed the McGill chapter of EWB to grow into what it is today— a socially-committed organization that is transforming students into change agents who are shaping the future of our society.
“If I design something, I shouldn’t just think about the profitability, but how it will affect other people,” explains current EWB president, Bailee Johnson (BEng’18). “EWB has made me into a more wellrounded engineering student. It has taught me to see issues I didn’t think were issues before.”
Johnson is the new head of an organization of 50 members from engineering, architecture, arts, geography, international development, political science and general sciences who are working in a range of local, national and international projects. These committed students are leading the student body to see engineering as an agency for positive social change.
On the international plane, the EWB McGill chapter is focused on five African countries, sending one of its students each year on an international development project, such as a recent project in sustainable water distribution in Malawi. What makes the group unique is its strong views on the long-term impact of their projects.
“It’s not just about building wells,” says Johnson. “We have to think about what happens after we disengage from a country: who and how will the work be continued?”
McGill’s Engineers Without Borders is about international development, and a whole lot more. Locally, the team recently helped McGill to receive its fair trade certification; they are developing a webbased tool that can reduce food waste in Montreal; they hold bi-weekly workshops for McGill students about socially-minded topics, and are planning a symposium where students can take progressive social ideas and turn them into tangible goals and actions.
“We’re helping youth to engage their problem-solving skills and to think about having a wider impact than just their personal goals,” says Johnson.
It’s been awhile since that first meeting in the Dean’s office, and Alexandra Conliffe has gone on to obtain her MSc in Environmental Management and PhD in Geography from the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. She worked for the Canadian government before taking on her current position as Vice-President, Operations of Engineers Without Borders Canada. On the national level, Conliffe is helping make EWB a major player in the development field (EWB Canada recently teamed up with Bono’s ‘One’ organization in the fight against extreme poverty). She’s also on McGill Engineering’s Faculty Advisory Board, which works to improve the overall experience of education for students in the Faculty.
“McGill’s EWB resonates with students and fills a gap that formal education doesn’t provide,” says Conliffe. “Students care a lot about their world, and they want to engage outside of their classrooms. EWB allows them to do that.”