Engineering: an exercise in failing, and learning from it

"Advocate for yourself and be confident — you are smart, talented, and your ideas deserve to be heard."

Liz Vasilkovs

Liz Vasilkovs

  • Degree: Bachelor of Applied Science
  • Grad year: 2021
  • Program: Mechanical Engineering
  • Campus: Vancouver

Seven years and one pandemic ago, I was on the cusp of beginning my university adventure. I was a hot shot high schooler ready to cruise through my engineering degree like every math and science class I had thus far. In reality, every year was a struggle. In first year, I struggled to adapt to the rigours of university vs high school, failing tests and barely scraping by. As a result, I did not get accepted into Mech, and soldiered through a year of computer engineering, desperate to get my grades up high enough to transfer. When my department transfer request and subsequent appeal were denied, I transferred to UBCO to study mechanical engineering, making the difficult decision to leave my partner and the life I had built in Vancouver behind. On my way to pick up the U-Haul rental, I got the call that my transfer to Mech was approved! I was thrilled to be able to study Mech and stay in Vancouver. However, debilitating mental and physical health conditions that arose during the course of my degree made each year a new and different challenge. Through all of this I’ve learned so much — how to bounce back from failure, how to navigate a system designed for people with different abilities than mine, how to ask for and accept support, and of course, how to be a mechanical engineer! Now that I have graduated, I hope to use my degree and all the other skills and wisdom I’ve gathered along the way to build a better world through sustainability, accessibility, and equity.

Why did you choose to go into your field of study at UBC

I agonized over choosing an engineering discipline, but ultimately Mech was the only choice for me. I initially chose to attend UBC because engineering first year is a general program and I could wait until second year to specialize. When the time came to submit my department specialization application, I spent hours staring at the application form and ruminating over my first year experience and the glimpses it had afforded me into each department. I applied to Mechanical Engineering, but was placed in Computer Engineering instead. This year was enlightening but ultimately not for me, and solidified my passion for mechanical engineering instead. Even though it took me a while to realize it, in retrospect, my interests have always skewed mechanical. As a child I built moving contraptions with K’Nex, sat rapt watching Battle Bots and Mythbusters, and pestered my sailing coach with questions when she explained how the physics of the wind over the sails and hull propelled the boat. Despite my difficulty getting into the Mech program, I’m glad I stuck to my guns and pursued my passion. Not only did it make a difficult degree more enjoyable, but it sets me up for a rewarding career in a field I love.

What has made your time at UBC memorable?

While the courses were interesting and the projects engaging, my most memorable UBC experiences have been outside the classroom. Through co-op work placements, I have experienced a broad sampling of where a degree in mechanical engineering can lead — from developing cutting-edge laser tech in Germany, to refining operations at a BC pulp mill over 100 years old. After spending hours in the classroom staring at notes and slide shows and derivations, these practical experiences reinvigorated my passion for engineering and the theory learned in class.

My UBC experience would not have been the same without the extracurricular activities and the general community. I met so many interesting intelligent people as a member of the AOE engineering sorority, and as a volunteer at both the Bike Kitchen and the UBC Farm. These friendships enriched my life by opening my eyes to ideas and experiences outside of my own background, and I am a better person because of them.

Tell us about your experience in your program. What have you learned that is most valuable?

The most valuable skills I have learned in my degree are the transferable “soft” skills not taught in any course, but learned through mistakes and struggles along the way. I learned to bounce back from failure, to ask for help when it is needed, and to work together with my peers to support one another through a difficult degree. I honed my leadership skills, and learned when to accept direction from other leaders in the group. I also figured out how to manage my time when it seemed like I had more assignments than hours in a day. Through overcoming setbacks, I developed the tenacity and confidence necessary to persevere through whatever comes my way.

What advice would you give a student entering your degree program?

It is important to advocate for yourself and be confident — you are smart, talented, and deserve to be here as much as the next person. As a woman in a male-dominated field and a student taking a non-standard reduced-course load degree, I found my ideas were often passed over and my voice not heard. Over time, this constant but subtle dismissal had me questioning my worth as an engineer and speaking up less and less. In one group project, I presented an idea that my group quickly dismissed, but weeks later when another person presented the same idea, the group pursued it and solved a major design problem. This was a turning point for me. This experience so clearly demonstrated that my ideas had merit but were viewed with a negative bias, and however unfair it was, I needed to be twice as loud and confident as the other engineers in the room to get my voice heard. This can be exhausting at times, but with advocacy comes understanding and change, and the many positive interactions I have had since then give me hope for the future.

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