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March 30, 2017


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An Engineer’s Place in Activism

March 30, 2017


It seems that over the last few months, there has been a push for social activism that I have not seen in my lifetime. Admittedly, my age and lack of experience in movements of social change probably plays a role in why I see things the way I do. However, a part of me can’t help but believe the increase in activism is a direct retaliation to the sharp decline in understanding and compassion displayed by our government lately. It’s exhausting to be on the marginalized sides during times like these, but it is exciting to see people stand up for themselves. I feel surrounded by individuals proving enough is enough and putting their feet down. Though it’s empowering, it has been somewhat isolating for me in a way. My activist peers all seem to be leading discussions and educating other people with words I’ve never heard. Not only are they educating others, they’re educating themselves about the issues in this flawed world we live in. I’ve been asked “Have you read [insert title here]? It’s great!” so many times. No, I’m sorry, I haven’t read that book. I haven’t read any book in a while. Unless of course you count “Physics” by Knight or “Essential Calculus” by Stewart, but those feel more of a punishment than a venture into greater understanding anyway. While I’m happy to be surrounded by people of this caliber, I feel left behind. I haven’t been reading. I haven’t been leading any discussions. What have I been doing?

But recently I have started to come to terms with the fact that maybe my role in all of this may be different than those of the activists I see immediately around me. I may not have the same opportunities to read the same literature as some of my peers. And I may not be able to have the same in-depth class conversations with my professors. But I still have a place in the movement. Even though it’s taken awhile, I’m finally starting to realize that.

You see, being an engineering student does not seem to directly align with any social movement. I can’t help but notice that the intersections between my class work and what’s going on in the sociopolitical atmosphere are very few and far between. I mean, I’ll never be asked by my professors to write a paper asserting what Trump’s election says about America’s view of women. All I can hope is that my probability professor will task me with finding out the probability of the GOP’s healthcare replacement being better than Obamacare (spoiler alert: the probability is very low).

Fortunately, though, that same probability professor, Doctor Ali E. Abbas, may be the light at the end of my tunnel. Dr. Abbas is a joint professor between the Viterbi School of Engineering and the Sol Price School of Public Policy. Furthermore, he is currently the Director of the USC Center for Interdisciplinary Decisions and Ethics (DECIDE). USC’s DECIDE Program aims to increase sensitivity towards ethical considerations in the areas of personal, corporate, societal, and public policy decision making. What does this mean to me? Well, it means an opportunity to use research to prove the importance of making decisions rooted in ethics as opposed to rooted in more inflammatory justifications such as fear.

I am currently in talks with the professor to begin conducting research under his leadership, hopefully in the DECIDE Program. Ethics rely on a certain amount of understanding for all persons involved in a decision. Because of that, I intend to use the information I learn from Dr. Abbas to aid me as I move further down my career path. I am not exactly sure of my trajectory right now, but there are some commitments that I have made to myself. First and foremost, I will run for office one day. And even before that, I intend to work with organizations and/or departments that are focused on some level of public policy. For this reason, the ethical approach to decision making learned through the engineering lens will be beneficial to me. And seeing as how I aspire to positively contribute to the world around me, it will be beneficial for the society.

I believe we are living in a time that will determine the direction this country will go in for the foreseeable future. It feels like every day there is a new battle added to the long list of unfinished ones. More importantly though, every day there are new people willing to join the fight. For a long time, I felt that my way of “fighting” wasn’t as important or influential as those around me. But I have come to appreciate everyone’s role in the overall machine, including my own. I will use the skills I learn as an engineer and in my new research ventures to cultivate a more accepting, compassionate, and livable future. Besides, as Dr. Abbas tells us, the probability of success for a venture increases when you bring in and utilize more skill sets.


This post was written by HSBC Point Scholar Julian Turner.
Julian is currently studying Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. Julian is originally from Louisiana and uses his experiences to help others have a more peaceful process of self-acceptance. Read more about Julian here.

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