I got to know Barbara through mutual connections on LinkedIn. What attracted me to her profile most is her passion in helping young Africans land good study opportunities overseas. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:
Hi Barbara, thank you for joining me today. Nice to finally meet you.
Hi Winnie. It is a pleasure to be here.
I welcome you to Words That Count. We aim at giving young girls in STEM examples of women they can relate to and continue pursuing their passion.
I commend you for what you are doing; it is very much needed! I remember the confusion after my masters degree of whether to continue with a PhD or go into industry. There was no woman to ask for advice from at that point. So, this is very important what you are doing.
Thank you for the kind words!
Please tell us your full name
My name is Barbara Asantewaa Aboagye.
What is your current occupation?
I am doing my PhD in Civil Engineering at the University of Sherbrooke in Canada. The construction industry is one of the major producers of Carbon dioxide in the world – it is the 3rd largest. One of the elements required to produce concrete is cement, which produces a lot of Carbon dioxide hence contributing to global warming. I am basically a researcher working on making cement and concrete better with a focus on reducing CO2 emission.
How did you become a Civil Engineer?
I have always been a curious child! I am thankful to my parents for not shutting me down when I had those endless questions. As you already know the traditional African culture, a woman is expected to be in the kitchen where they can’t ask too many questions from. My parents always encouraged me to ask as many questions as I could. For example, every time we went to the hospital, I would have long sessions asking doctors why this, why that, haha.
I grew up in Kotababi – one of the low-income communities in Ghana – but fortunately for me, my parents relocated us to a better medium-income community. That transition has always been a source of motivation for me because like I always say, the people that I grew up with are mostly school dropouts or pregnant (unwanted pregnancy). I feel like if I hadn’t left that community, I might have ended up as one of these people. I feel like I have been given a chance to be and do better.
My turning point in life happened when I was in primary school. There was this very smart boy; he was so smart that when we were in primary school, teachers from junior high used to come just to have a look at him. One time he said no body would ever be able to overtake him but one of my teachers said he knew I could do it. For me that was it. I don’t know what that statement did to me but it made me so studious that I actually overtook him the following term. I graduated among the best students and went to one of the best girls high schools in Ghana.
Between senior high school and university, I had to choose which career path to take. I knew I had grown up promising my parents that I would become a Medical Doctor but I lost that desire before joining university. We luckily had people come to our school to give us some career guidance related to the Medical field. That information made me realise that Medicine wasn’t for me, haha. I had a discussion with my dad and told him I didn’t want to become a Medical Doctor any more. This news broke him so much! That was the first time I had seen so much pain on my dad’s face! He gathered himself and asked me what I wanted to do. I told him Veterinary Medicine because I really love animals. His reaction, my God! Haha… he said, “hm, no! Not my daughter!”, haha. He told me I could work with my uncle who is a Veterinarian during holidays.
Trying to balance all sides of the coin, I suggested that maybe I do a degree in Law because I am naturally very argumentative; I am actually not very argumentative, I just like asking too many questions because I am a learner, haha. My dad said no! Apparently people don’t go to school to just do Law! I can do my first degree and maybe go to Makola – where Ghanaians go for a top-up to become Lawyers. After running out of options, he said he knew Civil Engineers were paid well, I should do that, haha. This was a good option because of the waste management component which was of interest to me. That’s how my Civil Engineering journey started – it’s not something I always knew I would do. I unfortunately failed to get good marks in the courses that would lead me to waste management. I was doing much better in Structural than Environmental Engineering. I decided to go with what was easier for me, and that’s how I specialised in Structural Engineering.
After my undergraduate degree I worked in the university for a year as part of my National Service, then moved to France for my masters degree. For me studying in France was one of the toughest things that had ever happened in my life. First, because life had always been smooth for me with no major challenges. Now here I was in France with a completely different language. Yes my program was taught in English but still, understanding the instructors’ accents was hard since English is not their first language. Because of that, it took me longer to understand simple concepts that I would normally get fast in an English speaking setting. It became harder because there was still no one to talk to; whether academically or socially. My friends at home couldn’t understand what I meant because they knew I was always a smart student! All they could say was, “you can do it”. I knew I could do it, haha I just needed a listening ear and someone to understand me at that point. I was getting the motivation but at that moment it’s not what I needed.
By the time left France, I was very drained and tired of school. I wasn’t sure then if I should go into a PhD or go work. I knew I loved teaching and academia but the stress that my masters put me through made me rethink my passion for the field. I decided to take 6 months off everything and really think about what I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to apply for anything but kept checking different requirements for both fields so that I was ready by the time I was “ready”. Planning is one thing I always believe in; I don’t like the struggle of spending too much time when it’s not even there any more.
I found a PhD that interested me and I applied for it – under no stress. The week I was to defend my masters thesis is when I received an email inviting me for an interview about the PhD. I had completely forgotten about it, haha. My very first reaction was to postpone the interview because; impostor syndrome kicked in and, I wanted to concrentrate on preparing and finishing my masters defence, plus many other minor reasons. I later decided to accept the interview despite my nerves and get that out of the way. Surprisingly the interview went very well and he promised to get back to me. I was called for another interview, which scared me instead! I wondered, “we just had an interview, why again am I being asked for another one?”, haha. It turned out this was just to inform me about another project and asking if I might be interested. This actually boosted my ego because this is someone who didn’t know me at all but felt that I deserved to be considered for different projects!
I took this project that I am currently doing, that’s how I ended up where I am.
Apart from impostor syndrome, what other challenge have you faced so far?
My other challenge has been lack of community. To solve this issue I have created a group of black women studying abroad with the aim to share our experiences and build a community. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we haven’t been as active as I wanted. It is easier for you to believe that you can do it if you hear stories similar to yours; like, women doing amazing things! I lacked a community where we could motivate and support each other. The other challenge was language barrier like I mentioned before, and maybe settling into a foreign country.
What is your daily source of inspiration?
My biggest inspiration is my dad! I mentioned about him being able to take us out of a not-so-good community to make sure we have a better future. That always resonates with me in everything I do. That was a great service he did for us; the least I can do is make sure he lives a comfortable life.
My other inspiration is my desire to go into academia and teach. I recently read through my letter of motivation and was reminded of why I started this journey.
Unfortunately we don’t have many black women in Structural Engineering. I want to be one of those women so that I can motivate other women.
My last source of inspiration are the people who have genuinely made it in life. They make me believe that I can also make it.
What are some of your prestigious achievements?
My perception of achievements is not the conventional way! I grew up in a very conservative community. So my greatest achievement so far is my ability to change my mind when things are not going so well. I am naturally very head-strong! I think through everything a little too much before taking a decision. Before my achievement, nothing would ever make me change a decision once taken. But now, I leave room for openness after deciding on certain things. This journey has taken me A LOT of effort! I am not there yet but I am at least able to listen to what others have to say. So my biggest achievement is my ability to unlearn and relearn when there are different views. This has helped me to understand that life s not just black and white and there are shades in between.
Academic success is normal to me, I have always been a good student. But this, this is very personal to me.
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
Hhmm, this is a tough question! Haha. I think the impostor syndrome I suffered really changed my life! I reached a point where I wasn’t interested in doing anything else. But I am nowt open to trying out new things, haha.
For now, outside work I run a YouTube Channel where I give tips to my fellow Africans on how to apply for scholarships and study abroad. This is also an avenue for me to meet new people – something I have come to enjoy.
I also enjoy watching series and listening to love songs; I love love.
Do you have a favourite quote?
I have 2 actually; “Always do what makes you happy” ~ Rachel Ann Nunes
“If not you, then who? If not now, then when?” ~ Hillel the Elder
What piece of advice would you give to a young girl who is struggling to fit into the STEM field?
Most times we tend to look at what’s around us and forget what’s within us and what we want to do. In as much as it’s important to listen to other people, we need to learn how to make the final decisions ourselves because only us know what it is we want exactly. Things might be hard but it is better to do the hard you enjoy.
Thank you very much for your time Barbara. I am glad to have connected with an intelligent person like you. I wish you all the best with the PhD.