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Beyond the Classroom Featuring Theresa Nguyen

Theresa Nguyen is a 5th-year dual degree student in Mechanical Engineering and International Development who believes creative expression is a critical skill, too often overlooked in the world of engineering education. She was attracted to the Lassonde School of Engineering because of its culture and environment after visiting during a Discovery Day and an Open House in high school. She found the people here to be friendly, intelligent and passionate about what they do. As a creative, it seemed to Theresa that Lassonde was not only a quality engineering school but also a place that supports a thriving creative scene as well. We caught up with Theresa to learn a little more about her passions inside and outside, the classroom.  

What’s your favourite part about being a student here? I have two answers for this. The first is the people: Lassonde is a vibrant community, from the students to the staff, to the faculty. I love being able to talk to my professors and like-minded students. It feels like a second home. The second answers are the values and potential for the school. Being a new school, Lassonde has the rare opportunity to change the way STEM can be taught. It’s exciting to be in a school that cares about that and is putting in the effort to make these values a reality for future generations.  

Why did you choose your program? I didn’t always know I wanted to go into engineering. I had a lot of varied interests and applied to nursing, life sciences, biotechnology and even business in addition to engineering. I decided to pursue engineering as I thought I could have more real-world impact as an engineer and also learn more technical skills. It was also an area I wasn’t too strong in – contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t the strongest person in physics! But I knew I wanted to learn what I don’t know, and I certainly didn’t know what mechanical engineering was. In retrospect, I’m happy to be in mechanical; it’s a broad discipline. In addition, Lassonde was the only school to offer the dual degree program in International Development, which fits with my previous passions in politics. I think it’s important, as an engineer, to understand the social systems the world is built on before deploying any type of solution. We shouldn’t exist in a technical silo; we live in an interconnected world, and so should our solutions.   

What are some of the ways you express yourself creatively? I grew up a lot more artistic than I thought. I started filming and editing videos in Grade three. Back when YouTube was just getting started, I remember being in the community that frequently posted random, edited videos. I’ve dabbled in short films, just post-production editing, music videos and animation. Since then, I’ve always been interested in filmmaking and hope one day I can become a film director or cinematographer. Growing up, I also played musical instruments (I was in the school band and jazz band in high school playing trumpet and learned the accordion and I also play the piano). I used to draw a lot because of my sister, which helped me start learning graphic design, one of my favourite ways to express myself artistically. In addition, this year, I joined the Vanier College Productions Show Choir here, as I really like musical theatre and like to sing and dance (but may not be very good at it!). I also like to write poetry to express how I feel and think. I try to combine these with the technical skills I’ve learned now, so I’m interested in applying my varied skillset in web development or UI/UX design.  

What excites you about film/your other creative interests? Film is a medium we use to tell stories and create impressions on ourselves. I once told my friend about a scene in Spirited Away that’s haunted me since, and he told me how though it may be scary, there’s a person who created that scene and it’s made an impression on me and my values, which is really great. Imagine making something that leaves a mark on a person with just a quick five-second scene in a movie! I want to be able to create those stories and leave that imprint. In general, I find artistic expression to be one of the unique ways to foster human emotion. There are songs we listen to that make us think, “Huh, this artist really gets me” and tens of thousands of people also feel that way, including the artist themselves! Everyone has their own different experiences, but there’s a way we are all connected in our ability to be human. I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s nice to know that no matter who you are, we all have fundamental human emotions that we all share. Sometimes we share that artistically.  

Why do you feel it’s important to have unique interests beyond engineering/science? Contrary to what we think, the world does not rely on just engineering and science and when we think that way, it’s almost as if we are denying different aspects of being human and alive. We live in a complex, interconnected system of people, we should all be multi-faceted beings with different interests. Creativity allows for different perspectives when approaching problems. Creativity is a muscle that’s practiced. A practical benefit to artistic forms of self-expression is it gives you the skills to better adapt your communications. This is an important skill to have, especially in engineering and science. Having different interests can teach you different ways of formulating solutions – in ways we may not have otherwise thought about.  

Are there any parallels between creative self-expression and engineering? I think it depends on where. I find a lot of engineering jobs now to be very traditional, and I wouldn’t expect a lot of “creative self-expression” to be acceptable. I think there’s starting to be a switch in how we perceive engineering, with more start-ups and innovative areas to consider concepts like design thinking and creativity, but it hasn’t been perfected yet. In terms of personally, I definitely think the way I express myself creatively in school goes well with engineering in terms of ideation and communication, but it’s good to have the technical, engineering concepts down to ensure the idea is good to begin with. The expression of the idea – story telling, creating captivating visuals and persuasive pieces – is what really pushes the idea further.  

As an engineering student, do you feel there are biases about engineers? 100%. It’s especially prominent for myself as a female engineering student. I like to play with how I express myself based on my clothing (fun fact: for the first four years of my undergrad, I tried not to repeat an outfit every day for school). Sometimes my clothing is more “feminine” or “artistic”, sometimes it is more androgynous or “professional”, and people’s attitudes toward me change because of that. It’s understandable, for the most part: the way you dress presents an idea of yourself to other people, which may question your credibility. Sometimes I want to question what professional attire looks like. What does an engineer look like? Do they have to look like someone who dresses “professional?” Why do we have these preconceptions? Perhaps it’s because the idea of an engineer now is a one-dimensional technical professional. Sometimes it’s fun to surprise people with what I study when their preconceptions of me is the way I dress, but I also wish I wasn’t deemed less intelligent or less likely to be an engineer because I decided to wear a skirt.  

What are your long-term career goals? I think life is too long to only do one thing. I’d like to be a professional engineer. I also really want to be a film director. I’d like to be a designer in both engineering and artistic terms. It’s hard to describe just one career goal because I want to learn a lot, and I’m lucky enough to be able to. I try to answer this question with two more questions: what problems do I want to solve, and what do I envision the world to look like? For me, I want to see a world that doesn’t get destroyed by climate change in 20 years. I want to see a world where biodegradable materials are more commonly used. I want a world that is more just. And there are different ways to approach these problems – not just with engineering!   There’s a quote I follow to answer this question by Toni Morrison: “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” For me, this means that my long-term career isn’t just a profession. It’s a mark I want to leave on society.  

How do your creative interests fit into your engineering-related career goals? Besides being used as communication skills that can support my engineering-related career goals, I think they can be used to elevate the types of engineering projects and ideas I have in mind. A lot of design thinking comes with designing for your client, so being able to communicate that and design for them is very helpful. A lot of my engineering goals require some kind of design thinking for user-oriented products, as well as a way to communicate them. 

Where does your creativity come from? Who inspires you? It’s hard to identify one source. I generally try to find inspiration from other artists. In terms of film, I’m currently a fan of Wes Anderson and Baz Luhrmann. I really like animation and German Expressionism films right now. I’m also surrounded by artists; one of my best friends is a musician who is also into film and fashion and is making bandanas; another is an animator and illustrator. I’m also inspired by engineering students creating prototypes of their designs. Seeing them create makes me excited to create. Largely, a lot of my motivation for creativity comes with small instances in life that make me go, “I can see a movie moment for this” or “What if it was designed like this?”  

What would you say to someone who thinks art is frivolous? Art is something we take for granted. If you think it’s frivolous, look harder. 

Engineering is a demanding program – how do you fit in the time for your creative interests? Is it important to you? It’s definitely important to me, but I won’t lie and say I have time to plan, shoot and edit an entire movie while studying engineering and international development. I think it’s okay that it takes a backseat sometimes, because there can be time for it. I try to sneak in my creative interests in my engineering projects, so if you look up all my mini design videos, there’s some level of thought put into the video. I also try to input my creativity in design in my research posters, presentations, and assignments. I think when people think of creative, artistic pursuits, they think of explicit fine arts. There are ways to enhance your work by adding another dimension of creativity and design (and it’s worked in my favour so far!)  

Any creative projects you’ve been a part of/produced that you’re particularly proud of? For our mini design 2 project, we created a potato canon. You read correctly. We created an awesome video montage of our process too. A lot of my videos related to design projects and courses are often silly stories. For one of my courses in the Las Nubes project, I created a video of the Expo Cobas we participated in, recapping the event and telling the stories of the farmers in Costa Rica about their role in the community. I showcased it at the end of the trip, and honestly, it was like a dream come true being on stage and watching everyone’s emotions seeing themselves on the big screen. This is how I found the impact film can make on people, especially when you tell their stories. I’ve also entered and won in the “Design Engineering Video Competition” for two years in a row. I also created a video for Kai titled “Finding Courage”, which is about engineering students finding how to create solutions that matter. I made a short film in grade 11 that was featured in an awards ceremony. It was titled “The Walk” which was to talk about the cognitive dissonance we have to the world and how we have the power to do something about it. Within my time at Lassonde Media Group, I made a lot of different videos and pieces. I made a lot of promotional videos for Lassonde Week Zero, such as a spoof of the Original Spice Man, and a video on the #MyActionsMatter campaign.  

How do you remain creative in an academic environment? If we are talking about being in school, I try to sneak in my creativity in the projects I do. But I actually don’t find Lassonde to be “an academic environment.” Though there is much emphasis on research and academic excellence, I think Lassonde fosters an environment of creativity as well, through the Renaissance projects, the passion projects course, initiatives like the Future Lab, the emphasis on design thinking in mechanical engineering, my mini design courses and extracurricular activities such as the York Engineering Competition. That’s why I chose Lassonde: it’s a diverse community where creativity thrives.