The real journey of an international engineering student: lecture & interview

(20-03-2023) As part of the university-wide month of diversity and inclusion, FRiS organised a lecture with alumna Karen De Sousa Pesse on Thursday 2 March. Afterwards FRiS had the chance to ask her some more questions. A recap of the evening:

Karen De Sousa Pesse got her Msc. in Sustainable Materials Engineering at Ghent University and is now a senior executive at Salesforce Public Sector. As an advocate for diversity & inclusion she talked about the obstacles she had to overcome, like lack of funds, prejudice and other difficulties and how she is now helping others with the knowledgde that she acquired.

Karen began her talk by asking why the audience wanted to attend her lecture. Some international students indicated that they were interested in her story, they especially wanted to know if their experience was a shared one or not. Others, in turn, were present hoping to take away a new point of view, or to learn more about her international experience.

Life story

The lecture began with a brief sketch of Karen's life: at 22, she decided to move away from Rio de Janeiro. Then, of course, the question was: 'to where?' After some detours (and a lot of perseverance), she eventually came into contact with professor Lieva Van Langenhoven. That is how she eventually ended up at Ghent University. Adapting here was not easy: to make ends meet, she had to work several jobs, which left her with too little time to get enough sleep, let alone study. In addition, it was difficult to fit in. Certain professors refused to give information in English, other students broke her bike and left threats that 'foreigners had to leave'. Despite all the setbacks, she decided to persevere: there are endless doors, as long as you keep knocking and don't stop after one rejection, one will open for you.

After her studies, Karen decided to start working as a consultant. She had the opportunity to work at a higher pace on a diverse range of projects and expand her engineering skills. At the same time, she also encountered many closed doors, or situations where she faced prejudice. However, she felt it was important to persevere: with every person she could make aware of their prejudices, she can make the lives of her successors a lot easier.


Why did you chose to study a Msc. in Sustainable Materials engineering?
I wanted to stay in the engineering field and took a bachelor's in nanotechnology before that. I learned about this programme through professor Lieva van Langenhoven, and this option suited me the best: the programme was interesting, I had a good connection with professor Van Langenhoven and I liked Belgium.

Could you take away some things you've learned during your studies that you can still apply in your daily/previous job(s)? 
Yes, because I have a technical background, I can quickly pick up on the topics the teams under my leadership are working on. It is easier to follow up on projects or create a strategy when you have a technical understanding of the situation. It also helps to come up with a different angle or new insights in certain management-level meetings.

Do you have any advice for beginning entrepreneurs?
In the beginning hardest part is usually finding customers and funding . So it is important to look for sponsors. When that fails, pause and think about what the problem might be: is it because there are certain prejudices, or is your product just not good enough? Then move on to the conclusion. One tip is to actively look for opportunities to join certain incubators or accelerators. Don't be afraid to look further than Ghent, there are also several opportunities for startups outside this city/country.

What advice would you give to students currently facing difficulties during their studies or early career? How can they overcome those obstacles?
There are different types of difficulties, it is important to first identify where exactly the problem lies. Look for a place where those weaknesses are not obstacles. Also be careful not to get stuck in a certain mindset, don't be afraid to change jobs, positions or projects to discover where your strengths lie.

Do you have any general advice or tips for all students?
There are many doors out there, you just need one door, keep knocking and trying.

How can we create a more inclusive culture? Are there certain strategies or steps we can apply here to promote diversity and inclusion?
Actively work on prejudices, many people are not aware that they have prejudices. In addition, it would be a good idea to make a subject on diversity and inclusion compulsory in the bachelor programmes, where the goal is to organise a project on diversity and inclusion at a local primary school. Prejudices need to be addressed from an early age on, not only among adults who happen to meet an activist colleague at 50.

Editor: Laura Sondakh (FRiS)