By: Natalie Cheung
My dad is always described as the joker of the family. From the stories, I’ve heard he seemed like a bit of a cheeky teenager. A bit of a rebel. He wasn’t really interested in school. His parents (my grandparents) knew that. Despite that, he went to study engineering at a technical college. I always wonder if he had felt pressured into that. He dropped out of classes after one year.
I’m so grateful for my dad. He loved taking home videos and photos of the family and we look back at the fondly. My dad once told me he wanted to pursue photography. He loved capturing light, happy moments which are important for families as they grow and grow up quickly. He also wanted to take photos for school yearbooks. With all these creative dreams and aspirations, how did my dad end up managing an Asian restaurant? Where is the creativity in that?
My dad passed away when I was a teenager. One of my last memories of him is visiting him at hospital. We discussed which subjects I would continue to study in the next academic year. We grew up in the UK where it’s normal to stop studying some subjects in Year 9 (8th Grade).
Some subjects were definitely on my list: Maths, Science, English, French. Some were a definite “no” for me, History, Music, Ancient Greek…
I wasn’t sure which subject to choose for my last subject choice and my dad told me to choose Art. This is my remaining memory of my dad. In the hospital bed, telling me to study Art as I have a good eye for it. After he passed away, I ended up studying IT instead of Art. I went on to focus on computing, maths and physics. I graduated as a civil engineer.
While my dad may have been pressured into studying engineering, I definitely chose it for myself. In fact, my now single mother doesn’t really know what engineering is. I found it for myself. But my mum does know it’s on the “approved” list of professions. Even though I chose the civil engineering field for myself, creative subjects were never an option for me. To this day, I have it ingrained in my head that creative subjects were “lesser”. That those who can’t study science or maths end up doing Law or worst case, Arts. It has been difficult for me to shake these misconceptions.
Only recently I have tried to reconnect with the creative parts of myself. They are so deeply buried from years of maths and physics equations that I know this will take a long time.
I am learning to understand the importance of creativity in civil engineering. Civil engineers must think outside of the box to create solutions for design problems. Every single challenge requires a creative idea and solution. We must think creatively to solve logistical problems, to provide a safe working environment, to stick to the planned programme and to ensure a high quality design. Only through unconventional and unrestricted thinking will construction projects be completed successfully.
As I learn to re-discover my creative side, I develop more outside of the box ideas. I also slowly step out of the box I have been put in over the years. Real life jobs and projects aren’t split into different subjects : technical versus creative. As a society, we need to stop making children and teenagers choose which side they’re on before they have a chance to discover all sides. Creative and technical skills go hand in hand in all parts of life
Natalie Cheung is an ambassador for minorities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). She sits on panels with the Institution of Civil Engineers and Women’s Engineering Society to push for equal opportunities and inclusion in engineering fields for all. For her voluntary work in Togo and UK, Natalie was awarded the YMCA England and Wales Young Leader of the Year 2018. Natalie is learning to explore her creative side and speak on her experiences of being British Born Chinese in industry and in life!
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