Abroad as a Faculty of Science Student

A Q & A with second-year Medical Physics student and Engineers Without Borders 2019 Junior Fellow, Pursod Ramachandran.

Pursod Ramachandran, second from the right, in Kumasi, Ghana.

You probably hear a lot of science and engineering students say “It’s not possible for us to go on exchange” and a lot of the time – with a few exceptions – it’s true. But Pursod Ramachandran, a second-year Medical Physics student at Ryerson, still found a way to take his learning global by participating in the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) program

After six months of preparations, the FOS student headed to Kumasi, Africa, for his first experience on the continent. The four month-long trip would require a lot of work – before, during and after – but would be well worth it. Curious to know more, we asked Pursod a few questions about his time abroad.

You recently participated in the Engineers Without Borders Ryerson Chapter as the 2019 Junior Fellow. How did you come across this opportunity and what made you want to do it? What did the selection process entail?

The Ryerson Chapter sent a department email during Fall reading week and being an opportunist, I decided to shoot my shot. The privilege to simultaneously travel and work as a student is humbling, as these opportunities are growing in number but still rare.

The first step was a Google form which, to my surprise, had no technical/engineering questions. They were experiential and interpersonal, focusing on the candidates’ understanding about global development and critical thinking.

This was followed by an in-person interview with the presidents and Returning Junior Fellow, a Ryersonian who has completed the program. This was where critical thinking was tested with a simulated Sub-Saharan African industry challenge and personal development was tested as with normal work interviews.

After successful completion, a Skype interview was done with Engineers Without Borders’ National Office. These questions were focused on how we would respond to cross-cultural barriers and our inspirations for the internship.

If successful there, potential JFs select which social ventures they’d like to work for and the ventures choose which JFs they would like on their team, ultimately determined by National Office.

It was a very demanding process, its pace being exceptionally challenging with a full course load and extracurricular commitments. However, it was a great time management and professionalism exercise. The number of emails and meetings required to secure $8,500 CAD* for the placement has taught me the value of appearance, active listening, grant writing, and timely implementation of different leadership styles.

*The grant was a result of several Ryerson groups and fundraisers that helped to raise the amount. (Physics Department, Science Faculty, RI, President’s Office, Bake Sales).

This year’s venture took place in Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda. Aside from the time spent on the fellowship, can you tell me a bit about your time there?

In Ghana, there were seven fellows – three were in Accra, and four of us were in Kumasi. We all spent time together when we could, visiting national parks and reflecting on our individual and collective experiences.

In Kumasi, we enjoyed the friendly smiles and the reactive expressions of locals when we attempted to speak Twi, their native language. Every Friday, locals encouraged us to participate in their tradition of wearing vibrant wax print and traditional clothing. The Ghanaian textile industry has a complex history and it is worth looking at the abundance of information about it.

We coordinated trips to various landmarks and libraries, culture centres and wildlife sanctuaries. We even had morning jogs, workout sessions and Sunday yoga classes. Every Wednesday evening, our apartment would be lively with salsa music as our instructors would go over basics, spins and line dances. We started at band, Kumajam, and made music with local instruments.

We cooked meals on weekdays and packed lunches to avoid the midday heat at work the next day. We had an efficient system that was also flexible.

My personal experience is documented in a series of audio clips and this includes language, work weeks, heat, being a Brown Canadian, comfort and control, and music.

Global learning is a great way to expose yourself to new ways of learning. How did this learning experience compare to that of the classroom setting at Ryerson?

My research during my internship, the work that I was doing at my social venture, was analysing the importance of experiential learning and nonformal education in global education systems. In short, this placement was invaluable. It is designed for individuals who either possess an innate desire to grow and learn or for those that have systems in place to guide them for growth. There is no professor, no midterm, no labs, so it crucial for us, the students, to do our own evaluation and really think about how we set up our thoughts. This is what is required for education at a young age. It should be compulsory to have experiences or learning opportunities that are economical and teach similar values to ultimately complement the classroom setting. Its apples and oranges, we need both.

The fellowship is 18 months in total; 6 months of preparations, 4 months abroad, and 8 months of experience in a leadership role at an EWB chapter. What are your next steps? Any other travels in your future?

The next two semesters I will be back at the Ryerson Chapter to assist the executive team with coordinating events and future partnerships on campus. This experience has made me reflective on my heritage and my ancestry in a way that I had never considered. It made me realize the value of creating global teams and international partnerships. As of now, there are existing family businesses in Sri Lanka where my academic background will be useful. That would be my primary focus.

Aside from Sri Lanka, I have always wanted to travel around Japan to explore the cultures. diets and landmarks. It would be really interesting to see how Western influences have changed them as well.

What was the biggest takeaway from your time abroad?

The importance of silence and professional reflection. This means to take the time to think about the overlapping systems in our work and consider which ones need our attention. It includes our outlook on challenges, confrontation, and the value of social dynamics.

What was the best meal you had during your time there?

Fufu: pounded cassava (tuber crop, root vegetables), with a spicy peanut soup and stewed chicken.

Why did you like it so much?

It was the first day of work. I dressed sharp and the sun was relentless. The monsoon season couldn’t come any sooner. My coworkers decided to take us to their favorite local spot. We walked inside the small shaded bungalow where we met a woman behind an open wire counter surrounded by cauldrons of hot soups.

With the choices of chicken, goat, fish with peanut, chicken and fish soups, I decided to try the chicken with the peanut soup. It was served with a huge round ball of pounded cassava, fufu, resembling pizza dough. We washed our hands with a pitcher of water and some soap and began our meal. It reminded me of how I’d eat at home. I pierced the fufu and dipped it in the boiling soup. With a piece of chicken, I tried my first bite. It was hotter than midday heat but it was amazing. I went for more. At this point, I was profusely sweating but so was everyone else. I loved it, no judgement. Just pure content. So now when I have an adequate amount of time to eat, I get fufu. It’s gotten to the point where I dream about it.

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