Student Spotlight: International Edition
I interviewed three international students within different sectors of St. Thomas’ School of Engineering, each of whom are at different stages of their educational career. The first, at the start of his path at St. Thomas, eager for more to learn. The next, nearing graduation, eyes on the horizon and looking for the next step. And the last, on her way to the culmination of six years of education, ready to change the industry.
Mohamud Abdimuhsin, from Kenya, is a sophomore in the Civil Engineering program. He was drawn to St. Thomas because he wanted a small institution, where he could have a closer relationship with his professors. Initially, Mohamud considered the medical field, but chose to explore the different fields within engineering. After discovering civil engineering, Mohamud applied and was admitted to the University of Minnesota and University of Maryland, but could not pass up the scholarship opportunities that St. Thomas could provide. The transition to the United States was initially straightforward for Mohamud, as he was accepted by a family of similar culture who fostered him and provided housing. However, after a year, they had decided to move out of state and thus Mohamud had to find some off-campus roommates. With the pandemic limiting social interactions, Mohamud dove into his schoolwork, and started to feel the itch for even greater learning. One of Mohamud’s professors, Dr. Deb Besser, felt that he would be a great fit for a lab assistant position. It was this opportunity that changed everything for him. He was able to find a mentor in Dr. Rita Lederle, who runs the Civil Engineering lab at St. Thomas. Typically, freshman and sophomore students don’t have the background needed for more intensive lab work, but Mohamud had prior research which gave him a leg up. Armed with the basic information needed, and a love of learning, Mohamud was able to rocket through literature review for the lab, and will be starting his research position this summer.
I asked Mohamud if he could start all over again, what would he do differently? “I would probably get my license, I have my permit but I’ve been putting off doing the actual test. But honestly, I think that I would’ve gotten more involved in the community on campus. Most of my friends are international students, and we enjoyed the events the OISS [Office of International Students and Scholars] hosted for us, but I know there is more to explore at St. Thomas.”
Khaled Shouman is a junior in the Mechanical Engineering program, and a continual contributor to the community and the diversity of ideas within St. Thomas. Khaled is from Egypt, and a transfer student as well, having completed his general education requirement at Century Community College. He was debating between the University of Minnesota and St. Thomas. Both schools have an excellent engineering program, but Khaled felt that he would be more comfortable at St. Thomas due to smaller class sizes, greater hands-on experience, and the potential for closer relationships with professors. I asked Khaled to tell me what drew him to mechanical engineering; “I’ve always loved to build, and do things my own way. My dad is a mechanical engineer too, he used to take me to his workplace when I was young, and I’d play with the tools there. When I get stuck on school projects, he’s always the first person I call.”
The transition to the states was relatively easy for Khaled. Having moved multiple times in the past, he had experience in acclimating to new environments and new schools, and was able to take full advantage of the resources the university provides. “The Office of International Students [and Scholars] was always helpful, they put a lot of effort into helping you build connections and feel welcome. That was why I decided to work as an International Student Ambassador, I felt that it was my time to contribute to the community that had helped me when I needed it.”
I asked Khaled to expand on his experience as a student ambassador; “Being an international student, I’ve been through the process of going to a new school and a new country that know nothing about—there’s a huge gap there. You have so many questions, but at the same time you don’t even know how to ask them, or even who to ask. There’s a lot of resources online, but that can be really overwhelming. As an international student ambassador, I try to tell these newcomers about my experience, or some of the things that shocked me when I first came here, or maybe even just the weather. Guiding them through that process, I feel that it makes it easier for them; and I feel good too, knowing I helped someone.”
Helping new international students isn’t the only way Khaled gives back to the community. In the summer of 2020, Khaled worked as a part of the Tommie Corps Student Scholars program, volunteering for over 150 hours. In this program, he worked at food shelters around Minneapolis, and devised a new system for cataloguing donations and distributing nutrition to those struggling during the pandemic. With Khaled’s system in place, the shelters were able to minimize the amount of food lost to waste. That same summer, Khaled was also working alongside his mentor, Dr. AnnMarie Thomas, in the Playful Learning Lab. The PLL is a team of undergraduate students, affiliated educators, and community partners, who come together to create hands-on learning experiences for K-12, emphasizing play. Within the Lab, Khaled worked in the PLAYground, which is an 8-week virtual summer camp for deaf or hard of hearing students. There, he helped in translating lesson plans to Arabic, as well as fabricating components so the students could create birdhouses at home.
In order to learn more, I spoke with the head of the Playful Learning Lab, and Khaled’s mentor, Dr. AnnMarie Thomas. She met Khaled when he was in the engineering design and graphics class for freshman. He excelled in the course, and was interested in the research she was conducting—so he joined both as a research student, and a teaching assistant for that same class. From there, she mentioned one of the current projects Khaled is working on; the OK Go Sandbox. This project is a collaboration with the rock band, OK Go, creating videos and activities which explore STEAM concepts and topics. One project, called “All Together Now” was born during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent isolation, as the band released a music video that they composed while separately quarantining. The idea behind the project is that each individual frame of the music video will be printed out and sent out to teachers around the globe, who then have their students draw and color on each frame. Khaled’s role in this project is critical, as he is the lead for one of the video components. This involves printing thousands of individual frames, logistics and planning for shipping, constant communication with international educators and classrooms, as well as coordination to ensure that each class receives entirely different frames.
Finally, I had asked Khaled what his plans for the future might hold; “I have two plans. Either I’ll apply for MIT, or I’ll get a job and get some hands-on experience before I get into grad school. I’ll probably apply anyway, but if I don’t get in it’s okay since I prefer to have more experience in the industry as an engineer first. I just had an interview with a company last week for an R&D position, which is something that really interests me.”
I am happy to report that after the completion of this article, Khaled informed me he had received the research and development engineering internship at Coloplast, and starts later this month.
Our last student is Victoria Farias, from Argentina. Victoria is actually a “double Tommie” having completed her Bachelor’s degree at St. Thomas in the Electrical Engineering program, and now returning for her Master’s degree in the same field, as a recipient of the Dean’s Scholarship. Her experience doesn’t end there either, as she met her fiancé right here on our St. Paul campus.
I asked Victoria what drew her to St. Thomas; “Actually, my initial plan was to complete my first two years at St. Thomas, finish all the required physics and math and then transfer in to the University of Minnesota. But by the time I had finished the two years, I had made such good friends, most of them international students, plus the people in the OISS [Office of International Students and Scholars] were so nice to me. I really liked the fact that I could talk to my professors in the smaller classes. It helped a lot since the engineering program is so difficult. That’s what made me stay.”
My next question for Victoria was why she chose the Electrical Engineering program; “At that point I knew I wanted to do engineering, but wasn’t sure which field I wanted to be in. My dad was an electrical engineer so I was leaning towards that, and I knew I didn’t want to be in mechanical or computer engineering. I tried out electrical and loved it; I met incredible professors. It was a combination of people being kind, classes being small, and dedicated professors that made me decide on electrical.”
I had asked Victoria if there were any role models or mentors that were highly impactful, either during her Bachelor’s or Master’s; “Dr. Greg Mowry, for sure. He’s the director of the Master’s program for the Electrical Engineering program, and a professor for undergraduate students. Dr. Mowry is the professor who inspired me to pursue renewable energy, because I was focusing on microgrid technology. Him and Zach Emond, who was a graduate student at the time, pushed me towards this path. I feel that renewable energy really is the best option for electrical students, not only because this technology is the future, but you’re also making an impact on the world. I hope that young engineers can continue to be inspired to help the industry move forward. And we need more girls!”
Victoria also participated in a research position during her undergraduate degree, which is how she met Dr. Mowry. He had formed a start-up company with Zach Emond called Renew Power Systems (or RPSI), which designs microgrids under the objective of simplifying the energy generation process, and increasing accessibility for all consumers. Victoria started working within RPSI during her junior year, after being approached by Zach, and worked there until she completed her Bachelor’s degree. After completing her undergraduate degree, Victoria jumped right into her Master’s without a break; “I know people think I’m crazy! I am tired of studying, honestly, but because of the [Dean’s] scholarship that they were giving out I had an opportunity to transfer some credits in, and finish in a year and a half. Plus, it was being paid for, so I couldn’t say no.”
My final question for Victoria was what advice she might give to new students, or young engineers; “To young engineers, I encourage you all to take advantage of the research labs here at St. Thomas. Never stop asking questions, and push to establish connections with your professors—they know best. To new students, I encourage you all to participate in campus events, do your best to meet new people, and leave your comfort zone.”
Speaking to these students, I was able to gain a greater understanding of the international experience, as well as how student diversity enhances our St. Thomas community. We wish them all the best in their futures.