Engineer builds bridges with Aboriginal communities through volunteering

Maria Tran is a young engineer who works for a NSW government department, but she also gives back to her community through her volunteer work with the organisation Engineers Without Borders. Read about her volunteer work, why she loves EWB so much, and her thoughts on the benefits of volunteering.

You have a first-class double degree in commerce/business and engineering from the University of New South Wales. Why did you focus on engineering in the end?

When deciding what to do at university, I knew that I wanted to study engineering. I was passionate about the environment, and I’ve always been curious about how things worked. Completing both degrees just confirmed my passion for engineering. What appeals to me most is that engineering is often all around us and enables so many facets of life – our transport, our water and the buildings where we live and work – yet much of the time it does its job so well that it’s invisible to most people (unless something goes wrong!). I love that engineering can provide an environment that creates opportunities for people to live, work and thrive.

Floating ideas: Engineer Maria Tran and Niah, 6, discuss the sanitation challenges of living in floating homes at a Science Week event in Sydney.

You’ve been volunteering with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) since 2015. Why is volunteering important to you and why were you interested in working with EWB?

I’ve always felt strongly about giving back to the community in which I live and work. I joined EWB because I wanted to be able to use my professional skills in a volunteer capacity, and I really connect with EWB’s vision, particularly the notion that everyone should be able to lead a life of opportunity, free from poverty.

Tell us what EWB does and about what motivated you to take on roles such as the NSW Engineering on Country Coordinator and the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council Partnership Coordinator?

EWB is a member-based, not-for-profit organisation that focuses on partnership, collaboration and human-centered approaches to create social change. Across Australia, EWB is involved in a wide variety of areas, including school outreach to encourage students (particularly minorities) to study STEM, partnering with community groups to deal with issues such as digital access, disability access, asylum seeker resources, water, sanitation and hygiene. I have mainly been involved in the Engineering on Country group, which focuses on issues facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Reconciliation is something that’s important to me because my parents were immigrants to Australia, and I have been very fortunate to be born in Australia and to have had so many opportunities afforded to me. I feel that it’s vital for us to work towards an Australia where everybody can be afforded equal opportunity, including our First Nations people.

How do you fit in volunteering with working full time?

I think this is one of the biggest challenges in volunteering. Sometimes it feels as if there are not enough hours in a day, although I’m sure this problem isn’t just limited to volunteers! Juggling a full-time job, volunteering and everything else that comes with being a well-adjusted adult (family, social life, exercise) can be a very delicate balance. I also travel frequently for work, which can mean a lot of early mornings, late nights and working from the airport.

I’ve found that being part of the community around EWB has really helped me to balance all these aspects of my life. When the going gets tough, I have great team members and other volunteers to draw upon. I share my Engineering on Country Coordinator role with Leon Ross (who is fantastic – shout out to Leon!), and we are great at supporting each other when life inevitably gets in the way.

Tell us a bit more about your volunteer activity with EWB?

I’ve held two roles in EWB in the Engineering on Country team, which focuses on issues surrounding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. My first role was the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Council Partnership Manager. In this role, I worked to support the La Perouse community to engage in self-identified projects that build engineering capacity within the community. I coordinated the energy efficiency projects in the community and at Matraville Sports High School during my time in this role.

Currently, I share the NSW Engineering on Country Coordinator role with my friend and colleague Leon Ross. Our task is to support the NSW EWB region to achieve EWB’s Engineering on Country strategy. Right now, we’re undertaking a strategy refresh, but our focus is on tackling the systemic issues that face Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by ensuring that everyone has access to engineering knowledge and resources, as well as creating pathways into STEM career fields for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

What fundraisers have you worked on for EWB?

Every year, the EWB NSW region holds an EWB Games Night where we have a round robin indoor soccer tournament. Teams are open, and anyone can join, but we have a lot of reach with our corporate partners in Games Night, and everyone has a great time getting a little competitive, eating pizza and learning about what EWB does within the region and how to get involved. EWB Games Night is one of the region’s most successful annual fundraisers.

Have you developed new skills because of your work with EWB that you can apply to your job?

Over the years, I’ve grown so much from my involvement with EWB. Some of the most useful skills I’ve learnt include being able to approach solutions by focusing on the strengths of the participants involved, rather than the problem itself. This approach often lends itself to much more creative and sustainable solutions.

I’ve also learnt the value of human-centered design. Often as engineers, we look at systems in an idealised, logical manner, and we forget that humans are imperfect and sometimes illogical. In the end, it is people that end up using the systems that we design, and people play an integral role in the success of any project. EWB has taught me to put the human at the centre of my thinking, and I believe this philosophy has been integral to success in my day job, as well as work I’ve done with EWB.

In 2017, you received the EWB Creator Award for your work coordinating the EWB-La Perouse Community Partnership. Tell us about this work and how did winning this award made you feel?

It was such an honour to be awarded the Creator Award and be recognised by EWB. The projects I managed could not have been possible without an amazing team of volunteers who spent many weekends designing, developing and ultimately delivering, energy efficiency workshops to students at Matraville Sports High School and to the La Perouse Aboriginal community. The project was initiated because members of the community were suffering from electricity bill shock, and EWB worked with the community to deliver two context-specific workshops that were tailored to young people and adults. The workshops were praised as successful by both the community representatives and the high school.

What are the benefits of volunteering? For example, did your volunteer work lead to your paid job as an engineer?

EWB has brought so much into my life. I’ve made life-long friends who inspire me every day through the amazing things they’re doing, their work ethic and their commitment to living their values. Most of my work with EWB has focused on reconciliation and working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, which I believe ultimately helped me gain my role as Senior Project Officer for the Aboriginal Communities Water & Sewerage Program with the NSW Department of Industry.

I’m so grateful to work every day in two areas I’m very passionate about – water and sewerage, as well as reconciliation!

Have you any memorable moments as a volunteer?

One of my favourite memories is from doing educational outreach in my local community of Redfern.

In 2015, EWB partnered with the Redfern Community Centre during National Science Week to deliver a workshop showcasing humanitarian engineering and using appropriate technology. During the day community members would come to the EWB stand to learn about the sanitation challenges of living in floating houses, which is something experienced by communities living on the Ton Le Sap lake in Cambodia. As part of the workshop, we would give people limited resources to build their own floating house, and community members could win prizes for the structure that could float the greatest number of marbles.

On that day I was there to witness six-year-old Niah break the EWB record for the number of marbles supported by a floating structure. Niah managed to float 242 marbles, smashing the previous record of 150! Seeing the smile on Niah’s face was unforgettable, and I hope that inspired her and the days’ other participants to consider a career in humanitarian engineering.

Would you like to do an overseas stint with EWB?

It would be an absolute dream! Particularly working in water, sanitation and hygiene, an area I’m very passionate about.

It’s been said women in engineering can have a challenging time on the work front in a profession that has traditionally been male-dominated. How has your experience been? (Hopefully, it’s changing for women!)

Sometimes being the only woman in a room full of men can be challenging in many invisible ways that I don’t think all men understand. Although it is slowly changing, the industry statistics are still sub-par, with only 11 per cent of people working as engineers identifying as female. One of the best things about EWB is that despite the industry statistics, over 40 per cent of EWB members are women.

I would not be where I am today without support from the talented, strong and beautiful women I have met through EWB. Strong female relationships are invaluable for building up women in the industry, as well as through life in general. I hope that young girls growing up can see more successful women in engineering and be inspired to change the world.

Finally, what do you like to do in your spare time?

In my spare time, I love being outdoors and in nature. I’m also partial to a Netflix binge or two on the weekends.

Hiking in the mountains, swimming at the beach, reading books in the sun and riding my bike anywhere my legs will take me are also some of my favourite activities.