Alisha - Electrical Engineer / Mataaro Pūhiko

We emigrated to New Zealand one month shy of my tenth birthday. I come from a huge extended family, mum is one of ten children. In India, we were constantly surrounded by cousins, aunties and uncles who all lived in apartment blocks close by. I'll be honest, when we moved here I hated it. We left our family, friends and our lives behind. I had to go to a new school, make new friends and start all over again. My parents also got a big shock when we moved. They went from high paying day jobs to working night shifts at gas stations. Mum was told she wasn’t ‘suitable’ to teach English in New Zealand, even with her 25 year of experience in the job.

When I lived in India, women always got into teaching or nursing, and men were in business or engineering. Mum’s mum was a teacher, and her dad was a businessman. She has seven sisters, all of whom are teachers. Out of three brothers, one is an engineer and other two are businessmen. On my dad’s side, grandma was a full time mother who had two boys. They followed in their father's footsteps and worked in the shipping industry. Because I was only a kid when we lived there, it never occurred to me that the roles for men and women were so distinct.

I noticed things were very different here. Female fire fighters? You’d never see that in India! There were a lot more male teachers in New Zealand, too. It challenged the way I viewed society. As I grew up and got to high school, the barrier seemed almost non-existent. I noticed a few girls going on to do engineering. That’s when I started to think about what I should do with my own future.

As a teenager, I’d change my mind about what I wanted to do all the time. Often it would depend on what TV show I was into. One week I’d be watching Grey’s Anatomy, so I wanted to be a doctor or a nurse. I knew I wasn’t good with blood and guts, but it seemed glamorous and fun. For a while I decided I would be a forensic scientist after watching one too many episodes of CSI. As strange as that sounds, those shows pushed me get on my laptop and research career opportunities for myself.

I love math and science because there’s an answer for everything - a right or a wrong. I’m the type of person that has an Excel sheet for everything. I wasn’t sure what sort of job I wanted to get into, so I went to see my careers counsellor at school. Knowing how much I loved these subjects, she told me to head to the engineering school to check out their open day.

One weekend, my best friend and I went to the University of Auckland to attend an introduction to their engineering course. We went into the electronics lab and they showed us how to program a simple car robot to drive itself around a maze. I’d never built or programmed anything before. I got such a rush when it worked. I knew in that moment that I was in the right place. Also, as a side note, it didn’t hurt that the refreshments on offer that consisted of pizza and beer.

My sister is 16 years old. I was talking to her the other day about what she wants to be when she leaves school. She said she hates being told what to do, and it totally brought me back to when I was her age. I gave her advice anyway. “Figure out what subjects you like and just do them. Do what makes you excited.” I think when you’re a teenager, you should do what you love. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a job doing something you don’t enjoy.

At school things came naturally to me, I didn’t have to try to get good marks. University was a big step up. It took me an extra year than most others to earn my degree. I learnt the hard way. I tried to do too many things and got involved in a lot of extracurricular activities. I played a ton of sport and volunteered on various committees. I would spend hours and hours on one project and, in the mean time, other assignments fell behind. I lost focus, starting enjoying myself too much and my grades slipped.

When it came to applying for jobs, I was really worried. I didn’t have the best transcript. I honestly thought no one would want to hire me. At the same time, I knew I had nothing to lose, so I applied to the top engineering firm in the country. They offered me an interview, then offered me a contract. I even got job offers from other companies. I was blown away.

In hindsight, I think all the extra little things I did on the side paid off. Like having a part-time job, playing sport, and being involved in committees. Maybe they seemed like a distraction at the time, but they helped me in the end because I was able to show a wide range of skills to prospective employers.

Beca are a great firm to work for as a new graduate and they are one of the best engineering companies in New Zealand.  It’s big, so you meet heaps of different people in all these different sectors of engineering. Everyone has been so welcoming. I really value the people I work with. I’m surrounded by high achievers who are so passionate about their work. They’re constantly striving to deliver their best, and it motivates me to do the same.

Relocating to Christchurch has been good, I’ve had to learn how to stand on my own two feet. It's been the prayer and the love and support of my family in Auckland that has kept me going. If I could move my whole family and all my friends down here, I would in a heartbeat! In six months my partner, Chris, will join me here. I can't wait for him to arrive. He's also an electrical engineer but he works for the opposition. I remember saying to my friends, “I’d never date an engineer.” Funny how things change.

Coming from a massive, extended family in India to only having our small, immediate family in New Zealand enabled us to become really close. I think that’s why I’m still so family orientated. To me, having people to love and to share my life and Christian faith with - my partner, family, friends - that’s success.

As much as I love kids and want a family of my own, I also want to be able to provide for them financially. Before we start a family, my priorities are to build a life for them. I want to make sure that before they arrive, we have a stable home for them to live in. For now, I can’t wait to become a chartered professional engineer. I want to make something of myself in a predominantly male dominated industry.

Grandpa still doesn’t understand why I’m an engineer. He grew up in a totally different time and place. He’s many conversations with my dad over the phone. “Why is she doing engineering? She should get a nice desk job, 9-5. Not be wearing a hard hat and safety gear.” He harps along, “You can’t be outside digging holes when you’ve got kids!” I try to explain to him what kinds of projects I work on. He started to listen. Secretly, I think he’s very proud of me.

How do I get into this career?

To be an electrical engineer you need to get a degree:

- Try the Careers NZ website, the link will take you straight to more information about the job. Their 'How to enter the job' section has a lot of really good info.

- You might like to follow up by emailing or visiting tertiary providers just like Alisha did. The Bachelor of Engineering degree is offered at many New Zealand universities.IPENZ has more information. They also have some interesting research on female engineers in New Zealand.

- Another idea is to research local businesses, call them, and ask if you can go in for a day or a week to see what the job is actually like. This will allow you to quickly figure out if this sort of job is for you. This is called 'informational interviewing' and there are some great online resources on how to approach this.