Adios Graduates, Bienvenido New Students

The period from July to September has always been an emotional period for me. It is the period when we, engineering academics, say good bye to our undergraduate students who have been with us for the past four years. It is also the period that we welcome the next set of new students into engineering school for the next four years. It is the end of an era, and the beginning of a new era. It is also a period of reflection and renewal, a period when I critically review the past academic year, and make plans for the coming year.

I particularly enjoy the graduation ceremonies – the pomp, the splendour, the happy families and the successful graduates celebrating the end of three or four transformational years at university. Most will have come to university at age 18, young, fresh-faced, ambitious, and ready to change the world in a really big way. Four years on, we have moulded them into young adults who are ready to step into the real world as young professionals. In four years, the idealism that spurred them into engineering will be tempered by the reality that only a university education can bring – if engineering is the ultimate tool to re-shape the world, then by the fourth year of university they know exactly the full extent of its possibilities and limitations.

Most graduating engineers will go into engineering. However, some will go off into other careers, whilst the more academic will go into further studies, hopefully to become the next generation of academics. All in all, graduation for me is like a coming-of-age ceremony, and it also marks the start of a period of anxiety for me. How will my students do in the job market? Will they be able to stand the competition and realise their dreams that we have carefully nurtured over the past four years of study. It’s not just a casual ceremony for me, it is like saying farewell to your own children who are moving to start a new life of their own in some distant city. And the question that lingers on is – have we prepared them well, has the education that we imparted to them been worth the four years? Has it been an investment into their lives, or has it been a waste of time?

For most, they will be waiting for the job interviews which start in earnest in September.  Listening carefully during the graduation ceremonies, you will hear whispers of the dreaded assessment centres. You will see and hear them swapping words of advice, and words of encouragement. They are celebrating the past four years, but their eyes are firmly fixed on the future, and that is as it should be. They are confident in the knowledge that they have built up at university, and in their newly acquired abilities.  I think that this is the mark of a successful university education, enabling individuals to gain knowledge and skills that can make a difference in the world, and equipping them with the confidence and purposefulness  to put that knowledge to effective use. And I know that as professionals they will soon be shaping the destinies of big and small organisations, and making an impact on society. Soon, I will be contacting them to assist me in the education of the next generation of engineers. Once, they were my students, now they are my partners in the advancement of engineering education.

And in mid-September, Freshers week beckons. The new students descend on the university, anxious, yes, but eager and raring to go. Engineering students are not homogeneous. They have different passions, different expectations and different goals. Learning is personal, and our role as engineering academics is to tailor our learning and teaching to every one of our students. University education at the end of the day is personalised education. It is a journey of collaborative self-discovery between the student and the teacher. Our goal as academics is to achieve this within the constraints and confines of a mass education system.

Some come with very clear ideas of what they want to achieve. They look forward to immediately designing and building full-fledged engineering systems. They want to know all about car engineering, or bridge engineering, or software design, or robotics, whatever it is, all at once. We have to calm them, and tell them that they are starting on a marathon journey, and not a sprint down the garden path, whilst also encouraging them to pursue their dreams, nevertheless.

A few of our incoming students will have real-life experience of engineering. They think they know all that engineering can achieve, and they know where they want to be after graduating. Our job is to mould their knowledge with our teaching, so that they can see and penetrate realms of knowledge and experience beyond the familiar, and help them to enlarge and redefine their future.

And some are coming into engineering because they want a good job at the end of the day. They are in it for the money, and not for the engineering per se. We have to work out a plan for them to engage intrinsically with the engineering field, and this means that we have to teach in such a way that engineering is real, practical and alive to them. Productive learning only takes place when passion is involved, otherwise it is just dead learning, and dead learning has no impact on the person and on the world – it is dead, no matter how well it is delivered.

Finally, some students coming into engineering are just coming in because, for some reason, they had to go to university. After all, going to university is the done thing these days, so to university they came. Perhaps they are coming because of family pressure, perhaps just because of peer pressure. All the same, they are here, and our role is to enable them to discover for themselves new roles within the richness and diversity of engineering. After all, when all the maths is said and done, there is always something that can inspire anyone within engineering. As humans, we are born creators, and engineering presents to you the tools for creativity. In other words, there is a natural synergy between humanity and engineering. Therefore, as engineering academics, our goal is to clear the pathway for our students to discover this for themselves.

So the period from July to September is an emotional roller coaster for me. I have to say “Adios” to the students I have nurtured for four long years, and at the same time I have to say “Bienvenido” to the incoming students. And so goes academic life.

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