Hello everyone! Welcome to Part 2/2 of my blog on queer experiences in the Design and Engineering programmes at UoA. Time to talk about the one you (may or may not) have all been waiting for: Engineering!

Personally, I’ve found it really interesting to compare and contrast the experiences of being queer in the two programmes. If you’re also curious for a comparison as well as my final thoughts, stick around for the end of this blog! In the meantime though, I’ll let my friend in engineering share his experiences having just graduated from the programme, using the same questions I asked my friends in design.

1. Do you feel you get the chance to express your identity through your degree/program? If so, how/in what ways? If not, why not? (expressing oneself might not look like being openly out)

Arlo (he/they): This is a tricky question because though I was openly out as bisexual, I didn’t realise I was trans until my final year. I had a great group of friends who all accepted me and I always felt like one of the boys within my social groups even before, but I didn’t make it widely known. I feel like I could be myself most of the time, but there were definitely still pockets of people who weren’t keen on any diversity whatsoever. For myself I would say I expressed myself, but I can understand why someone else might not want to. 

2. Have you found any sense of community within your degree/program that’s tied to your LGBTQ+ identity? If so, please describe; if not, what’s your experience like instead?

Arlo (he/they): Yes, I found a great community in rainbow engineering. I joined from my first year, and it gave me a safe space to explore my gender identity. I had been questioning deep down since high school, but growing up in rural New Zealand there had never really been a safe time to do it before.  

3. Do you feel comfortable being yourself or expressing your identity (whether you’re out or not) in your degree/program? Do you feel that you are/would be generally accepted by those around you, including staff and students? 

Arlo (he/they): I’ve graduated now, and if I went back in time I would feel comfortable expressing myself given that I do it in my workplace now. At the time though, when everything was still very new and vulnerable, not so much. From my experience at work in hindsight I think most people probably would have accepted me, or at least kept it to themselves if they didn’t. 

4. Do you have any advice for young queer students starting university, both in general and potentially in the same degree/program as you?

Arlo (he/they): Join your faculty LGBTQ+ group and any other group relevant to you (such as trans on campus). Don’t be afraid to explore who you are as you enter this new phase of your life. I went in vowing to accept my femininity and left as a man. Even if you don’t get a new gender, you’re sure to get plenty of new hobbies and interests so keep an open mind. Anyone who doesn’t accept your identity is no friend of yours anyways.

My Closing Thoughts:

First of all, I want to say a huge thank you to my friends in design and engineering for sharing their experiences and insights in their respective programmes. I also want to give a huge shout out to the queer communities I’ve become a part of in the last year: for all the queer friends I’ve befriended in Design, and for Rainbow Engineering who I’ve had the privilege of working closely with through my involvement in the Women in Engineering Network last year. These communities have definitely made my uni experience all the better, just as they have for the friends I’ve interviewed here. 

To close off, I thought I’d briefly share my thoughts on how identity, especially (but not exclusively!) queer identity, can be tied to and interconnected with design and engineering respectively. A common notion I sometimes face is that design/arts is more creative and “social”, thus making it easier to express yourself in coursework when given the freedom to do so (eg. with more open-ended projects). Engineering, on the other hand, is often seen as technical, where the work we do and our personal identities are not intertwined at all, and I think this difference can be seen in the contrasting ways my friends answered the questions I gave them. Having also discussed with some engineers in industry on this matter, I’ve learned that some people like to keep their personal identity, queer or otherwise, completely separate from work — something I very much respect and believe they have the right to do so. However, others like to find a sense of community within their workplaces that’s tied to their identities, leading to the formation of Rainbow networks like the ones seen at UoA. I think it’s important that the option is there and that people are given the freedom to explore and express their identities, no matter what degree or career path they’re in. 

With Design, this option of expressing oneself through projects and coursework is sometimes there, although with improvement needed, but there’s little to no room for such expression in Engineering at the moment. I think this puts engineering (or at least the way it’s taught) at a disadvantage at times: you’re not always properly equipped with the ability to interact with people of diverse identities and backgrounds because there’s no way to explore those aspects within the program. To be honest, I’m not sure if there is a better way to explore such concepts in engineering. However, I think being able to broaden your worldview in general by listening to and learning from other perspectives is an important skill for engineers to learn in order to better understand social context and to incorporate such understanding in our professions. If you want to build those skills, whether you’re queer or not, join Rainbow networks as an ally! Most will be absolutely delighted at your interest in supporting them, and you’ll get to meet some cool new people along the way. 

Through all of this, I essentially wanted to challenge the notion that there’s no place for expression of identity in engineering: in the end, engineers are in the business of people, meaning that social context is absolutely crucial to consider when dealing with clients and key stakeholders. Being able to explore one’s identity, as well as meet others from diverse backgrounds and identities, allows for individuals and teams to gain a better understanding of said social context — understanding that can then be applied in industry where it matters most. 

I hope you enjoyed reading about me and my friends’ experiences as queer-identifying students in design and engineering! My biggest takeaway is definitely the same as that of my friends: whether you’re queer or not, get engaged with the Rainbow community by joining groups like Rainbow Engineering, Rainbow Business or Trans on Campus (to name a few!), both to help you find a sense of community and to connect you with others of similar and different identities and backgrounds. 

Good luck with the new semester! And as always, you got this 🙂

– Sophia