The Engineers Without Borders-USA National Conference: What to Expect and Why you Should Attend
— Robert L. Read and Abigail L. Beck
Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) is directly building local infrastructure for clean water, rural electricity, sanitation and shelter to hundreds of small communities across the developing world. It holds a conference every year near the first of November in different cities across the nation. We’ve been to three of them.
The conference is a critical gathering for EWB-USA, a volunteer, non-profit organization. We’re writing this to encourage EWB-USA members, especially student members, to attend, but of course not-yet-EWB-USA-members are welcome as well.
What to Expect (Organization)
For those of you who may have never attended a conference, let me lay out some basics.
- It is in a hotel.
- There will be about 600 people there, about half of whom are students or young professionals.
- It costs about $300, depending on how early you register, and if you have a student discount.
- There are workshops before and sometimes after the conference, which cost extra, but are a good value, in our experience.
- The conference is usually two days. At any point in time, there will be about 4 tracks going on in different rooms. Choosing which track to attend carefully will amplify your experience; we’ll say more about this below.
- There is something like a dance-party with snacks and a cash bar the final night.
- The lodging expense is significant. Quite often lodging has more affordable student rates. One can sometimes split a room with someone to get three nights for approx $175 a person.
- The vibe is fun, but relatively sober and service-oriented.
In terms of the talks, the EWB-USA Conference is about half-way between a peer-reviewed academic conference and a convention, such as a science-fiction convention. That is, many of the talks are somewhat technical, but by no means hard for anyone to understand. Some of the talks are about how to have fun in your chapter. Many of them are interesting case studies of projects.
What to Expect (Experience)
Expect to be a little confused and disoriented when you first show up. If you are like us, you may experience a little social anxiety, but this is a very friendly and approachable group of people. Expect people to say “Hi!” to you and ask where you are from and about your chapter. There will be people from essentially every state, and people working on projects all over the world, including in the USA. They may have a ribbon on their badge saying what region they are from. Most of them will be engineers or engineering students.
As always, people are a little cliquish; people from the same chapter tend to hang out together. However, if you make an effort to mingle you will likely be invited to dinner with other people.
The number of sessions will be overwhelming, and you can’t see everything. Some of the talks will be awesome; some will be so-so, and it is hard to tell ahead of time. Generally, there will be time to get from one session to the next. Expect some sessions to be standing room only; others will be partially attended.
Dress will be “business casual”. Older men tend to wear ties and jackets and older women dress more professionally; students will be in anything from professional to more casual t-shirts and jeans.
There will be “plenary” sessions where everyone is in the same room, usually a large ballroom. Usually these occur in the mornings and the final night.
How to Maximize Your Experience
When you arrive, get your program booklet and don’t lose it. We like to immediately start planning what sessions we want to see. If we are with friends from the same chapter, we try to split duties so we can get some information from sessions at conflicting times. Generally you will be able to see about 8 to 12 talks.
What we have found helpful is to try to go to sessions on all different topics and not just go to all sessions of one type. Choose one or two that you are most excited for in a certain group. Go to some project based, professional development, chapter operations, and so on — make sure you get a good mix!
We suggest you try to see:
- One water/sanitation talk.
- One electrical power talk.
- One structural engineering talk.
- One talk about running a chapter.
- One talk about culture (either EWB culture, safety, or in-country culture).
- One or more case studies of actual projects.
Traditionally there is a morning pre-conference jogging group that helps to create a bond with people.
If you are with friends, try not to spend all of your time with them; try to mingle as much as possible. You may wish to compare notes in the evening.
At the coffee breaks, try to go around and introduce yourself to lots of people. Often there will be groups of people from a chapter gathered around a table. We are less shy than average, perhaps, so this is easy for us, but it does take an effort to be outgoing for two full days.
At this conference, you can always ask what projects a chapter or a person has worked on, and if they have traveled and to where. Often, you may wish to ask “what kind of engineer are you?”
We personally love to geek-out as much as possible; the poster session is a great way to get some in-depth technical discussions going. However, you can usually get people talking about their projects easily. Some students will not yet have much experience on an actual project.
There is usually a career session by sponsors. This would be useful for those looking for a job; I am not but I go by all of their booths and try to thank the sponsors for being there. Students may be interested that NCEES sponsors a table and usually are handing out free exam prep materials.
The conference is a great place to get questions answered, including questions which may be hard to articulate. For example, why do we work more in some countries than others? What is the difference between the service corps and international programs? Where is EWB-USA heading?
This is a good place to consider volunteering for national or regional positions and tasks, rather than local chapter work. In general, people start at a chapter, and may then volunteer at a larger geographic region. One is not more important than the other — EWB-USA is based around getting projects done at the local level — but your skill and interest may extend beyond your local chapter. Here you can hold serious conversations about those opportunities.
Who Should Attend
You should seriously consider attending the conference if:
- You are a student who has never been to any kind of conference and want a new experience.
- You are an EWB member motivated by seeing the bigger picture.
- You have questions on how to improve your chapter.
- You are looking for a job and can afford it.
- Your local chapter feels isolated and has not sent people to the conference before.
- You are not a member of EWB-USA but want to know if it is a good fit for you and you can afford the time and travel.
- You are a faculty member or professional considering starting a chapter of EWB-USA in your locality.
You probably shouldn’t attend if:
- You are looking for highly technical talks.
- You just want to party.
- You are not intrigued by the mission of Engineers Without Borders.