MHC alum has a blueprint for success

Farah Rawas '17 spent the summer after she graduated from Mount Holyoke working on the Community Center construction.

By Keely Savoie

Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, Farah Rawas ’17 always knew she wanted to go into engineering — she could see the effects of poor mechanics and lack of resources all around her.

Daily electrical outages and insufficient water supply and treatment meant that she and her community frequently faced water shortages. The influx of refugees over the past several years put additional strain on the infrastructure that was already creaking under the demands placed on it.

But she was also looking for a program that went beyond textbook knowledge. The undergraduate engineering programs she encountered often had inflexible curricula with an exclusive focus on technical information that Rawas felt was incompatible with tackling real-world issues.

Then she discovered Mount Holyoke College, which offers a dual degree in engineering through partnerships with three engineering schools. Rawas received a B.A. in environmental studies in May, and she will earn a B.S. in engineering from the College of Engineering at nearby University of Massachusetts Amherst, next spring.

While the technical skills she is learning are essential, she has found that the larger, world context that Mount Holyoke offers equally necessary.

“Whatever technological solution you devise as an engineer will be worthless if it is not anchored in the social realities that people confront,” Rawas said.

Additionally, she learned Mount Holyoke offers extensive internship opportunities while attracting a significant community of students from all over the country and the world.

“I knew I’d be well-equipped with resources and skills to return to benefit my country and the community I grew up in,” she said.

The perfect fit

Rawas has the best possible foundation to build her future on, said Dylan Shepardson, associate professor of mathematics, who helped her navigate the dual-degree program’s  requirements.

“Farah has the creativity and imagination required to effectively integrate technological solutions into the real world,” Shepardson said. “When you combine the broad foundation of liberal arts with the technical background of an engineering degree, you get people who can devise creative solutions to problems using critical thinking and social awareness skills that are not typically taught in technical programs.”

At Mount Holyoke, Rawas found her home in the Restoration Ecology Program, directed by Kate Ballantine, assistant professor of environmental studies.

She stood out immediately, Ballantine said, calling her former student “brilliantly intelligent.”

“She’s so well-rounded,” said Ballantine, who not only taught Rawas but also hired her to work in her laboratory, with funding from the Miller Worley Center for the Environment. “She’s gung-ho, present and compassionate. In the field, no matter how wet, dirty or cold we would get, she had this bright, enthusiastic way about her.”

Over her senior year, Rawas worked on designing a research proposal and experiment on the treatment of graywater with Ballantine. “Doing the research and education myself, I learned what worked and what didn’t work in the real world,” Rawas said.

The concepts she learned in environmental studies at Mount Holyoke put her in a league of her own among her engineering classmates a few miles away. Asked to design an overpass for one of her design classes, she included a rain garden and bike trails in order to counteract the pollution in the area.

“The professor thought it was so cool,” she said. “In engineering those things are not often taken into consideration unless they are your specialization.”  

From learning to leadership

Rawas also took a spot on Mount Holyoke’s Sustainability Task Force, an initiative that is guiding the College toward greater sustainability. The group’s co-chair, Nancy Apple, noted that the student perspective was invaluable to the shaping the work of the group.

“Farah's campus research experience informed the discussion and recommendations around the campus Living Laboratory Initiative,” said, Apple, who is the associate director for sustainability at the Miller Worley Center.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke, Rawas spent the summer as an intern with Shawmut Design and Construction, working on the College’s new Community Center and learning the ropes of building construction on the very campus where her education began. She was responsible for monitoring and tracking the construction to ensure its adherence to the silver design standards of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

The job gave her a unique view into the inner workings of the buildings where she had spent her first four college years.

“I never imagined digging under Blanchard, where I spent most of my undergraduate time, and seeing the utility lines, pipes and wiring,” Rawas said “It really helped me appreciate the history of our campus, and how, through so many changes, contractors have been able to manage modernizing the buildings without changing their core elements.”

She plans to pursue a graduate degree in construction management and sustainability so that she can take her vision, her education and her ambition to improve the lives of others to the places in the world that need it most.

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