Iron Ring reflections

Friday, February 12, 2010

Hi everyone! Given that it’s been a week and a half since my last post I’m sure you’re all just aching for more pensive words from David Hewson, Esquire. For those of you who were hoping for another marathon post of 2500+ words, I’m sorry but you will be sadly disappointed – I do like blogging but it’s just hard to find the time.

Last week’s post didn’t really give you much of an update of what I’m up to, and for the most part it’s been more of the same in many ways. I have five engineering courses to stay on top of, my Beyond Borders course, plenty of things to think about to prepare for my trip this summer – at the moment, I have to think about the shopping list of immunizations against a plethora of diseases whose symptoms do NOT sound like fun in the slightest – and still a long way to go on the fundraising front. In the past weeks I’ve begun to finally iron out most of the wrinkles in my Soup and Stew for Peru fundraiser and start to sell my frozen homemade soups, stews and chillies, and the initial response has been extremely positive which is always nice to hear. I’m also spearheading a band night fundraiser (called Music with a Mission differentiate it from the band night last term haha) that our group will be holding in March.

However, last weekend stands out for me in a very important way, because after 4.5 gruelling years, the 2010 UW Engineering class finally got their Iron Rings. For those of you who are entirely unfamiliar with the Iron Ring, let me digress: the Iron Ring is traditionally received by graduating engineers during their final academic term, in a secret ceremony whose details are not meant to be made public (so don’t ask me to tell you about). After the ceremony, the participating students emerge with an Iron Ring on the pinky finger of their working (writing) hand. The iron in the ring (it’s actually stainless steel these days) symbolizes the iron in the Quebec Bridge, which collapsed twice during construction due to faulty engineering, and caused the death of several workers. The idea behind the Iron Ring is to remind engineers of their duty of care to the general public, who trust that engineers will do their work in a thorough and ethical way and will not harm them. By wearing the Iron Ring on the outermost finger of their working hand, engineers constantly feel the presence of the Iron Ring as they work and are reminded of this responsibility.

Personally, I strongly identify with the idea of the Iron Ring and the message it conveys, and ever since I have received my ring I haven’t been able to stop playing with it and feeling it on my hand as I write. It’s also made me reflect on where I’m coming from, where I’m going and probably most importantly, where I am right now. In many ways, I have (voluntarily) branded myself as an engineer – or at least an engineering student – and yet, it was something I was never so sure about. When I applied to university, engineering was just one of several different programs I applied to, including Arts, Arts and Science, and Environmental Sciences. One of the reasons I chose Environmental Engineering is that if I didn’t like it, it would be easier to switch into other programs than if I wanted to switch from Arts or Sciences into Engineering! Throughout the first couple of years of university I often felt like I really didn’t belong in the program, and that I should have done something else. However, as we began to start applying things we learned about in class to real-life designs and were encouraged to solve problems for ourselves, things became lot more interesting. The excitement I’ve felt about engineering this year, which really hit me when I finally felt the cold ring on my hand made me realize: I had been so used to being unhappy in my program, how would I deal with the fact that I now kind of liked it?

At the same time, I’m trying to fight off the influence engineering has had on me, or at least trying to balance it with something else – and this was one of the reasons why I decided to apply to Beyond Borders in the first place. I had always been interested in issues of social justice, equality and development, but I hadn’t really had the chance to focus on them in an academic sense since high school. The program did not disappoint, and as we ploughed our way through readings and confronted issues and emotions that I hadn’t truly addressed in years, I realized that I had changed as a person in the intervening time...arguably ways that made me more of an “engineer.” I was definitely more results- and action-oriented, and more focused on tackling problems that had clear possible solutions than in considering problems that seemed inherently hopeless. I also noticed that I was much more critical of people who did not share these priorities – to the point that I could see my “new” self being impatient and frustrated with my “old”, pre-engineering self. Many people would argue that this shift to being more practical was a good thing, but I wasn’t so sure. For example, I remember on several occasions being upset by my inability to focus on my engineering work after doing a Beyond Borders reading, since I just couldn’t focus on flows and fluxes and fluids when I had just been forced to reevaluate my opinion about one issue or another. Pre-engineering Dave would have delighted in his world being spun on its head, but post-engineering Dave found it disconcerting and annoying. This, of course, is the whole point – as an anonymous wise lady once told me, whose identity will remain anonymous (her name is Joanne Benham Rennick), “if you’re not frustrated, you’re not learning.”

Since then, I think I’ve begun to reach a balance between the two, and I’m incredibly grateful to Beyond Borders and the people I have met because of it. While I think that UW Engineering is an excellent program, I do think that in many ways, it can hurt your humanity. It’s not intentional, but I believe that the extremely technical nature of the program, combined with a heavy courseload that can make it difficult to find the time to do much other than work, led me to neglect important aspects of who I am and who I want to be. Ironically, I think that by trying to break away from the beaten path I could have followed with engineering, and by getting into Beyond Borders, I think I have developed more of the ethics that the Iron Ring supposedly promotes.

Earlier, I mentioned that one of the reasons I ultimately chose to study engineering was because it would be able to switch out of more easily than other programs, but recently my mom reminded me of another reason - one that I had totally forgotten. During the time when I was choosing university programs to apply for, Haiti was hit consecutively by three different hurricanes, causing widespread flooding and death. From what I was reading at the time, the extent of the devastation in Haiti was caused by larger problems, such as the massive deforestation that caused flash flooding whenever any significant rainfall took place and by the general poverty of the country, whose people could not afford to build structures that were strong enough to withstand the flooding. I learned that environmental engineers could help determine how to avoid the floods and the devastation they caused, by reforesting important water reacharge areas, and generally improving the environmental situation. I had completely forgotten about this until this year when Haiti was once again devastated by a natural disaster, this time by a massive earthquake in January that hit the most densely populated part of the country. My mom reminded me that "you went into environmental engineering for Haiti" - which isn't the entire truth, but it was shocking to realize that I had completely forgotten about that. So in a sense, getting into Beyond Borders was like coming home...maybe engineering hasn't changed me as much as I thought it did.


Denise said...

Dave, thank you for posting the meaning of the iron ring. Felix and I had wondered about it (I was telling him how happy I was that you finally had it, and how having it on changed you in a way I couldn't explain). I used to think the ring was an archaic penis extension of sorts, but now I am touched and honoured knowing what it signifies.

also, I am very glad that you have found your "fit" (you and I and Cat all wrote about this theme... without prior consultation... kind of strange, and neat!)

Carolina said...

Hey Dave; what do you think you would have studied had you gone into Arts?

Elyse said...

I've found with academics that it's very easy to loose focus on every other aspect of your life when there are so many school deadlines looming! I'm also glad to see you've found your fit - and it's really neat to learn about your initial thoughts about Haiti.

David Hewson said...

@Denise...haha I'm glad my post cleared up that Iron Ring misconception. And yes, while I still don't know what I'm gonna do once Beyond Borders is done after Peru, I think I have found a "fit" as an Environmental Engineering graduating student and a member of the BB program.
@Carolina...when I applied for Arts I was initially interested in languages, but I haven't been too impressed with the way they are taught at universities - or at least at UW - and I don't think I would have stayed in that program. Based on the Arts courses I HAVE taken, I think I may have majored in Philosophy since I was really interested in thinking about people and why/how they do things...but that's just a guess.

Olivia said...

"Ironically, I think that by trying to break away from the beaten path I could have followed with engineering, and by getting into Beyond Borders, I think I have developed more of the ethics that the Iron Ring supposedly promotes."

I think it's funny that you used "iron"ically when talking about your "iron" ring.
This comment probably demonstrates that I am the youngest of the group, after such a profound post.
Nice work Dave! I hadn't read any posts since today and I read all of yours. They are all very insightful and deep.

savija-nevena said...

Speaking of Irony. I found myself utterly frustrated with my new program. I keep thinking about Science, and how structured and laid out it all was. Open your book and read, memorize and compare with any of the 400 other people who have read and memorized the same thing. If you are wrong, you are quite obviously wrong.
Environmental Resource Studies? Not so much. Compare with the rest of the class? Well, that will just take a whole class. Everyone that read the paper will think from a different perspective. The same issue will take priority from a policy, planning, social justice etc view point. Some aspects will be more important than others. Not everyone can agree... frustration, frustration..
I also remembered what this anonymous lady said, must have been the same one :).
"If you are not frustrated, you are not learning."
Ironic that it also really stuck with me as well.

Glad to know you are doing well.


Twister said...

You are a rock star!
I've been scheming a super secret plan to go back to university and become a psychologist (the psychologist part I can do, the school to become one seems a daunting task I've yet to convince myself is worth it)

And the premise of my thesis project would be to create an outwardly inconspicuous test to identify people who have a certain (top secret) quality in university, including humanity-draining professions like engineering ect.

i.e. people like you!

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