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Engineering: My Spanish Connection

Posted by on Wednesday, March 29, 2017 in Intellect, Many Voices, One VU.

Alexander Plevka,  ’17, School of Engineering  

An engineering student operates under the assumption of limitations. We are constrained by cost, time, materials, dimensions, force, weight, shear moduli – you get the point. We are taught in classes that technical problems are just that – technical. They are presented and solved in a nicely wrapped package at standard temperature and pressure, with a highly specific solution, and they rarely involve people.

After carefully planning my tight engineering schedule to accommodate a semester abroad, I was suddenly stripped of the comfort provided by Vanderbilt and dropped into a Spanish University of strangers. The problems were no longer just technical; they were lingual and cultural. I was embarrassed that the English abilities of my new classmates far exceeded my own Spanish abilities and I was paralyzed by my novel sense of powerlessness.

Toward the end of the semester, the time arrived to break into groups for one of my course’s final projects. Three months of intimidated anti-social behavior left me alone, and I was forced to confront my apprehensions and join a group. I expected coldness from a group of strangers whom I’d ignored until that point. But they weren’t cold. And they were hardly strangers. I quickly realized that the technical problems presented by engineering could serve as solutions for my other doubts. Though I lacked Spanish fluency, fluency in engineering proved to be an effective substitute. Effortless conversation about our project topic quickly blossomed into one about which of Madrid’s famous discotecas I needed to visit before leaving.

My engineering education has provided me with many tools, tools that I can use to solve technical problems. But it has also provided me with a rather unexpected tool: an icebreaker, a base of knowledge and interests linking engineering students across the globe. It transformed what could have been an alien experience into one that revealed the wide social and professional scope of my education as it fosters compatibility and teamwork and pushes the limits of culture and language. My interests and my education have given me the tools to tackle the strangeness of a new situation and to transform strangers into friends.

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