UNAC Vancouver – John Gibbard Memorial Award Speech
Thank you all for inviting me to be part of this wonderful service.
I am very honoured and thankful to be here, receiving the John Gibbard Memorial Award. My name is Andrew Sheroubi and I am a recent graduate from the University of British Columbia with a degree in Chemical and Biological Engineering and a minor in Entrepreneurship.
A bit of background about myself: I am originally from Egypt, but I lived a good part of my life in Saudi Arabia. When I was 15, my family decided to move to Canada after the events of the Arab Spring which was quite a turbulent time. We were, and still are, Coptic Christians, an already persecuted minority in the country. Growing up, my parents faced many challenges and were denied opportunities, and with the events of the time it didn’t look like things were getting better.
Not too long after I arrived in Canada I made a startling realization: I can do stuff. There were several existing frameworks and resources, along with a general willingness by the community, to support new ideas and initiatives. I joined a few student action networks where I was connected to like-minded students who showed me the possibilities of what could be done. I then became more involved and started leading my own projects. My first major project was a cancer awareness program at my high school through the Canadian Cancer Society. They provided training and resources to help me start and run this program, and is an example of some the great systems in place to encourage youth involvement. I also got involved with the Canadian Red Cross through their Humanitarian Issues Program. I had the chance to facilitate their global issues symposium in 2013, which was a 4-day overnight camp to educate, inspire and provide youth with the tools to enact change in their local and global community. I still keep in touch with some of the participants of that event, and they continue to do great humanitarian work that was inspired by our time together. Sadly, due to restructuring, this program was cancelled.
I was not ok with that. I have seen the impact of this program and the ripple effects it creates; so I decided to take matters into my own hands. I wanted to ensure that high school students continue to receive the training and resources that inspired and empowered me. Some time passed, and through a collaboration between the SFU and UBC Red Cross clubs, the Red Cross Student Movement was formed. My goal was to develop the youth outreach branch of this group to deliver the same support that the Canadian Red Cross did. Now 4 years later, I can proudly say that we are. The Red Cross Student Movement is now an independent organisation that hosts a variety of events throughout the year. Our flagship event is our Humanitarians in Training conference, which is a day-long event where we educate youth about global issues through interactive simulations and experiential learning; connect them with community leaders and likeminded peers; and give them the tools they need to take action. This year’s conference is actually going to take place on Saturday, November 10th at UBC.
In my first couple of years of university, I was working on humanitarian projects mostly independently from my engineering studies. I then attended a talk that revealed something that should have been very obvious to me: the idea of humanitarian engineering. Specifically, I realized I could use my training to address water security challenges around the world, which was the subject of two projects in my final year. It seems silly at first that I didn’t think of that on my own. After a bit of reflection I realized why. It wasn’t covered or touched upon in our curriculum. We weren’t taught how to apply our technical knowledge to help the most vulnerable members of our world. The Engineers Without Borders chapter at the university was doing great work, but it focused more on advocacy and raising awareness.
However, many engineering students were attracted to it in hopes of applying what they were studying towards helping people. I decided to start my own program to do just that. I mentioned this to a UBC staff member who recommended that I deliver this program through a course. This was shocking to me; can I do it? Am I qualified? Despite my doubts, I decided to go for it anyway. The interest I received for this courses exceeded my expectations and was quite heartwarming. Students wanted to do good in the world!
This course was approved as a full 3-credit course at UBC as a student-led seminar. The goals of this course were to train engineers to be more globally minded and aware of the context and underlying factors behind humanitarian and social issues. It also aimed to provide an avenue for students to apply their technical knowledge towards addressing some of the problems in the world. The course covered topics from political science and international development as well as technical knowledge on three streams: food, energy, and water security. My proudest part of that course was the final design project. Students were grouped into multidisciplinary teams and chose a problem statement provided by non-profits and charities from around the world. These were real-life technical problems that the organizations were facing. Along with working on a solution, the teams had to analyze the underlying issues that the organizations were trying to address. I am extremely proud and happy with the work that the students have done, and the organizations feel the same way. All of them are using the final project reports in some capacity. This course is easily the highlight of my university career.
There is some exciting news regarding it too. As a rule, student-directed seminars were only allowed to run once. However, due to the success of the course, which I have to attribute to the great students involved, allowed a professor and myself to get two new courses, one theoretical and one practical, approved for a (hopefully) permanent spot in the engineering curriculum. These courses are anticipated to run in the fall of 2019.
I want to pause here and take a moment to thank you again. These projects happened because of people like you, and organizations such as UNAC-V, that provide the necessary support for initiatives like mine. It is wonderful to see a society that cares so much about the betterment of people’s lives. So once again, thank you. I want to end by sharing what is currently inspiring me. Here it is: I will not change the world. Let me repeat that one more time: I will not change the world. Allow me to explain.
I have always struggled to answer the question, “why am I involved in these issues?” I finally realized it’s because that’s the wrong question. In my opinion, this is a responsibility; a given. I have to be involved, there’s just no other way to be. The focus however of a particular action is how to best help the people affected by that specific issue. This is why I constantly tell myself that I will not change the world; because it’s not about me or what I am doing! It is about people struggling every day to meet their most basic needs. It’s about people who are discriminated against; people in conflict; and people without a home. Most of the issues I have come across are incredibly complex. To improve a community’s water security might damage their food security and vice versa, for example. These complex problems require systemic solutions to truly address them. For those reasons, it is important to take the self out of the equation. Just do the best you can with what’s in front of you. I won’t change the world. You probably might not either. Together, however, as a local and global society, we just might.