Historically, women have been underrepresented in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and many women pioneers have seen their work credited to men, their contributions in STEM omitted from history books. Still, there are women today who are making great strides in STEM, paving the way for and inspiring young women throughout the world to pursue STEM careers of their own.
I’ve never met Ey Abellana, a nineteen-year-old engineering student from the island of Mindanao, south of the Philippines. She messaged me one day to say hello after we connected on social media through a joint interest. I told her I loved her work. She always looked like she was having fun and always had a smile on her face. She responded, “Oh, I’ve just mastered the art of looking at things in a different light, though it’s not always sunshine and rainbows.” She asked what I did and I told her I was a writer. I asked the same of her, curious about her work, about which she frequently posted. “I can never compete,” she said. “I’m a student and a peace, equality, and environmental advocate. So mostly I do community works if I’m not sitting in the four corners of my room.”
Her response struck me in its modesty and overwhelming underestimation of the sheer importance of what she’s accomplished at such a young age. She said I inspired her, which was exactly how I felt about her work. I was deeply moved by the depth of her humanism and activism. Thus began a series of messages to this young woman in Mindanao whom I’ve come to greatly admire. I share her story in the hopes of inspiring other young women to pursue their dreams and to inspire those like-minded individuals who are working so hard in their own communities as activists and advocates.
Ey (pronounced like hey without the ‘h’ – a nickname that represents the triple AAA initials of her real name) describes her work and place in it as luck at having been given platforms to do the work for which she’s passionate. Ey refers to her work as little things. Yet another understatement of magnanimous proportions for which she has an endearing knack.
Ey describes Mindanao as an island stereotyped as unpeaceful and troubled by armed conflict. This conflict led her to question true peace and whether it was attainable. She began volunteering with small NGOs for indigenous people, applying for different youth programs which enabled her to meet and understand people from the different areas of the island she called home.
The conflict she referenced began in the late 60s when an armed Muslim group (Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF) sought a Moro homeland to which the Philippines government gave a militaristic response that resulted in numerous deaths and the civilian displacement of both Muslims and Christians. The 70s found the government and MNLF in peace talks and led to a peace agreement with the main armed front of MNLF. However, armed conflicts continued to occur between the government and a second opposition group known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. As is so often the case, non-combatants are caught in the crossfire, resulting in homelessness and human rights violations. Ey lives in the peaceful city of Davao, but has friends in Mindanao who have been affected by the fighting. They call her a city girl. “MNLF call themselves freedom fighters. The Moro rebels want to gain independence and autonomy like a full cessation based from historical oppression. In our forums, we also meet their leaders. All they want is peace. But displacement from home, war and bloodshed are happening. We are hoping the incoming government can end it all.”
Ey is a Geodetic Engineering student, which she describes as physical and mental work. Geodesy is a branch of applied math and earth sciences, a scientific discipline that deals with the measurement and representation of the Earth (or any planet), including its gravitational field, in a three-dimensional time-varying space. Geodesists study geodynamical phenomena such as crustal motion, tides, and polar motion. For this, they design global and national control networks, using space and terrestrial techniques and rely on datum and coordinate systems (Wiki). In typical Ey fashion she downplays the importance of her studies. “Big words when in reality it’s just measuring everything with a steel tape. With engineering, I wasn’t really interested in it if I’m to be honest. I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, a linguist or a communication analyst. Math is something I never excelled in, and maybe that’s the deal breaker, but I’ve always wanted to break free of my comfort zone so I took engineering. I wanted to be a real lady in a man’s world.”
At nineteen, she’s already accomplished a great deal. “After I get my degree, I really want to get teaching units. Maybe teach indigenous kids. Or law, be an environmental lawyer perhaps? Haha, it’s got nothing to do with engineering per se. If given the right scholarship though I really want to practice engineering abroad while I study. I think it will be a great immersion for me so that when I return to my country, I can share more of the world.”
For women considering a career in STEM, Ey offers the following advice, “It’s not gonna be easy. Even if they say that we’re living in the 21st century, people will still doubt you. You are still not going to get that job, not that project, not that position because you’re a woman. Be courageous in saying and proving that you can do what men can do and sometimes even better.”
Ey has encountered discrimination from some of the most unseemly places. “I don’t understand how some of my professors say we’re not fit for the job because we’re girls.” Early on women are being deterred from pursuing STEM fields by their very own educations but Ey says the discrimination continues with internships. “They say, oh, you’re a girl. Are you sure you’re willing to give up that skin cream? That’s literally the first question. Not even skills related. I only had three female engineering professors, one of whom went from being a field engineer to teaching when she didn’t get the chief position she was over qualified for on account of her gender.”
Ey ended our interview with an inspiring message by including her favorite song, “My Wish For You,” by Rascall Flatts. I continue to be amazed by her work. Ey Abellana, like so many in her generation, are making the world a better place for all living and for future generations. Little things, she calls them, but those little things are making a huge impact in Mindanao creating ripples of change and inspiring others around the world to do little things of their own.