Seven is magic for Shannon Hoekstra

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If UBC were Hogwarts, Shannon Hoekstrawould be receiving her degree in wizardry as well as a BASc. Occasionally referred to as “Harry Potter girl,” in reference to her 2013 Imagine Day and TEDx Terry Talks speeches, Hoekstra could not be more thrilled with her degree and time at UBC – even if it did take seven years to complete.  Though seven years may seem like a long time to complete an undergraduate degree, Hoekstra is quick to point out two things, it does not matter how long it takes, it’s what you get out of your degree that matters.  The other? It takes seven years to graduate from Hogwarts and become a wizard, she says, in comparison seven years for an engineering degree seems reasonable.

What has made your time at UBC the most memorable?

I would say my involvement with Engineers Without Borders. The first meeting I went to was in 2010 and it was really great. The people are super welcoming and inclusive and make you feel right at home. I’ve learned a lot about international development and poverty and the role that engineers can play in the community to help improve the lively hood of people.

Can you tell me more about your time with Engineers without Borders?

When I joined Engineers Without Borders (EWB) it was a kickoff meeting back in September 2010 and I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t know anyone when I went and I was really nervous and apprehensive about it. I had this perception about what EWB was going to be like and what it was going to entail, namely, that we were going to talk about how engineers could use all there technical skills to make the world a better place.  We do a bit of that, but it is actually how engineers can use their problem-solving skills to help people.

Contrary to what people think, EWB is not just for engineers, there are students from other Faculties in EWB as well. I was a member the first year and after that I became Vice President, Communications and then I served as President and this year I am a regular member again.

EWB has a lot of values, and one of them is to ask tough questions; it’s something that I’ve applied in my classes and in my co-op terms. It is something that is important because speaking your mind is how you learn and how people learn from you, you can really make a difference by doing that. Another value is investing in people and that’s something I’ve gained from EWB. Taking the time to get to know the people that you’re working with and in terms of international development, ultimately, we are trying to help people. We are not working for them, we are not handing them computers – we want them to be able to build the computers themselves. That’s something that I have learned a lot about and really enjoyed.

Why did you chose engineering?

Initially, I chose science. I was in physics for two years because I like science and I was good at it. However, about a year into my degree I decided that physics was too theoretical for me. I decided to switch over to engineering because it was more applied and hands on. [In engineering] I get to use the theories pf physics to solve problems.

You didn’t start out at UBC did you? You were at UNBC studying physics.

I was at UNBC for two years studying physics in Prince George where I’m from.

Why did you choose to come to UBC for your engineering degree?

Far enough away from home but not too far! It’s only a plane ride away. I have some family here in Vancouver and I thought it’s a beautiful city so I might as well go to school here.

Can you tell me more about the academic experience in engineering? What have you learned that is most valuable?

I would say in terms of academics make sure to make friends within your first year here, especially when you go into your program, and use the people around you to help you study or finish assignments or lab reports.  Engineering is a really demanding degree and it’s almost impossible (unless you have no social life!) to do everything by yourself. Use the resources available. Go to your professors and talk to them because that’s why they’re here, to help you learn. Make sure to use everything that is around you. The university exists because students go to it! You really need to use everything available to you.

How are you applying the skills you learned through your studies at UBC?

I went through the co-op program which was 20 months of technical work experience. I would say that I haven’t used so much of the technical aspect of my classes–a lot of the jobs I have had you learn on the job – it’s not really the technical stuff that you learn in the classroom. The classes have given me the background knowledge, but you don’t know how to do a job when you get to it because of the courses you’ve taken. I would say it’s more the group work and the soft skills that you gain from design group projects or you learn how to manage your time and work together, communication skills, leadership skills, these are all the things that are handy in your co-op work term and these are the things that I’ve applied the most that I’ve developed at UBC outside of UBC.

Another opportunity you took advantage of was New Venture Design as well. Can you tell us about that experience?

Yes! There are three engineers and three business students that make up a team and you basically work on an entrepreneurial enterprise and start a company. You work as much as you can to provide a product or service. It is a great opportunity and it is a great learning experience. I’m learning a lot about the business side of creating a product that I will be able to carry out into my engineering training.

Our project is to re-engineer and re-design the urinal because we felt that it is something that has not been tackled in a very long time. Now, I don’t have any personal experience with this but I have five guys in my group! During our idea generations the first semester–that was basically from September to November where you give out any and all ideas that you have–the urinal was on our list as a sort of joke. We ended up choosing it in the end because we thought it would be something different. It’s not that glamorous or sexy but what attracted us to it was that no one has really done it before.

What advice would you give to someone considering engineering?

That’s a hard one! I would say make sure that you know that it’s something that you want to do because it is a demanding degree. Ask yourself, will you enjoy it? Because at the end of the day, if you are not enjoying what you’re doing then what is the point? If you are getting the degree because it is a professional degree then you may not be happy about it. Make sure that this really is something that you want to do and ask yourself why you are doing it. Also, take the time to learn how to manage your time –explore, go online, talk to people, look for frameworks. I think that for any degree in university you need to learn how to manage your time and not stress out. So you’re not pulling so many all-nighters or having to study all the time.

What do you think you were able to accomplish in seven years that you were not able to in four?

For me, if I had done my degree in four years I wouldn’t have transferred. What I was able to accomplish in that time was figured out what I really wanted to do and what was going to make me happy. There are some people who do know what they want to do right away and they are able to complete their degree in four years and that’s totally awesome, but for me that was not the case.

I just went to university because it was expected. You know you graduate from high school, and the next step is to go to university and that’s what I did – never thinking about what I wanted to get out of a university degree. I went into physics because I was good at it but then I learned that that was not really what I wanted to do with my degree and that was not what I enjoyed. In seven years my biggest accomplishment was figuring out what I wanted to do. I was able to meet a lot more people who I wouldn’t have had a chance to meet had I not transferred to UBC.

Where do you find your inspiration?

From the people around me – whether it be in the classroom, in EWB, in the basketball team that I am a part of with UBC Rec. There are so many people with so many different passions and I really feed off of people’s energies (I know that sounds really corny!). That’s where I get my inspiration to either do well in class or try something different or try something that scares me; it’s from the people around me.

Do you have any plans for after graduation?

No plans immediately. Long term I would like to have a job! I am currently in the process of applying for jobs. So, no immediate plans, but long term my goal is to work in the metallurgy/mineral processing industry. I’m in Materials Engineering but I’m in the metals and minerals extraction and processing stream –a specialization in fourth year. It falls into the mining and natural-resource industry. I would like to be working in that as an Engineer-in-Training for the first few years and then get my P.Eng and maybe do project management in the future. But that’s really, really long term, so who knows where I’ll end up.

How will you, Shannon, go onto make a difference in our world?

Oh wow, big question. I am not sure if any one individual can make a difference in the world. I think that that is the work of multiple people that can make a difference working together. When I think of all of the things that have gone on in the past seven years, yes I have held higher leadership positions but I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t had a team. At the end of the day it was really a team effort in whatever we accomplished with EWB or MTRL undergrad club; it’s dependent on everyone that we worked with.

I guess individually I will continue to challenge myself and continue to ask the tough questions that I think need to be asked. To challenge the status quo and what people think is normal. Because I think that something that is really lacking in society today is that people tend to become complacent and apathetic and it’s the easy path to take. Asking the tough questions is scary and takes a lot of energy, so I know why people don’t do that and I know that sometimes I don’t do it. But I will continue to challenge myself and remind myself that we need people in the world to get involved and ask questions that are not normally asked.

I was at the TEDx Terry Talks in November, and I have one final question for you – do you now consider yourself a wizard?

So, it’s really funny because I gave a similar talk on Imagine Day for all the incoming first-year engineering students, and it was shorter – only seven minutes. But I used the Harry Potter theme as well and more than three or four times people have referred to me as the Harry Potter Girl. It has honestly made my life! I feel like if I die tomorrow, I would be a happy person. Like people really think I am a wizard or at least I’m the Harry Potter Girl. So yes, yes I do consider myself a wizard now.

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