Last updated February 13, 2018 at 12:13 pm
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a mechanical engineer, social activist and founder of Youth Without Borders, which works to improve the lives of young people and their communities. She’s also a self-confessed petrol-head who was born in the north-east African nation of Sudan and grew up with her parents and brother in Brisbane. Helen Hughes talked with her about her life as a young Muslim woman working in a male-dominated field, her support of young people and her obsession with motor racing.
Ultimate Careers: How did you end up working on oil rigs?
Yassmin: I studied mechanical engineering at The University of Queensland. I wanted to work in Formula One [a top tier of car racing], so I designed car chassis for my university’s race team. After that, I got into a masters of motorsport at a university in the UK. But I had to save up for it, so I came back to Australia and got a job working on oil rigs across Australia.
Yassmin: It was so hard! I had so many different interests. I knew I wanted to change the world and help people so I thought maybe law or international relations. But, I also dreamt about being the first female Formula One driver, even though I definitely wasn’t on track for that.
I just tried so many different things. I went to university open days and did work experience in so many different places to try and get an understanding of what different jobs would be like. It was really important because it’s hard to know what a job is like before you get there. But, once I picked engineering, I knew that was it.
I wanted to work in cars, and I knew I could use engineering as a tangible way to help people. I could actually build solutions to the world’s problems.
UC: What does your work on oil rigs involve?
Yassmin: My first job in the oil field was as a Measurement While Drilling Specialist. I was in charge of all the tools that told us which direction and what we were drilling through. It was part hands-on work and part data analysis; not quite what I had studied, but the skills I had from engineering ended up being really useful.
From there, I worked as a Well Site Engineer, which is what I’m doing now. Basically it means I design the well. I help supervise different operations, do different calculations and train up to be a Drilling Supervisor, my next role. That will be essentially running the rig – supervising 100-150 people. It’s huge. There are day shifts and night shifts, so you only directly supervise half the number of people on the rig but there’s still a lot of moving parts.
UC: It’s a very male-dominated environment. Is it difficult?
Yassmin: It’s not much of an adjustment. Any girl who does engineering is pretty used to working in a male-dominated environment. You can’t force the culture to change so you adjust – rightly or wrongly – to the culture that already exists but you find what you’re comfortable with and you get to set the tone for the language that is used. At the end of the day it’s a professional workplace and that comes first.
UC: You founded Youth Without Borders while still in high school. What drove you to do this?
Yassmin: I had attended the Asia Pacific Cities Summit, which brought together young people from around the region. We talked about what we were doing and the organisations we were part of. I saw what everyone was involved in but they weren’t working together, so Youth Without Borders was founded to get people and organisations to work together and create positive change.
I had no idea where it was going to go. I think that’s the benefit of doing something like that in high school – you’re less worried about what people think and what might go wrong. It lets you focus more on the work, which is the most important thing.
UC: What Youth Without Borders project are you most proud of?
Yassmin: My favourite project is the Spark Engineering Camp. It’s a camp for young people who wouldn’t normally consider going to university. We sponsor them to attend a week-long camp at a university and show that it can be an option for them.
So many of the kids we work with have never had someone believe in them so sometimes that’s all it takes. It’s incredible to see the difference that belief makes: we have students coming back year after year saying, “I would never have considered going to university, but this has changed my life”.
UC: There aren’t many prominent Muslim women working in STEM-based industries so who or what most influenced you growing up?
Yassmin: The reality was that there weren’t many young Muslims working in anything in Australia while I was growing up. But I was lucky. I had family who were engineers and doctors. They were back in Sudan, sure, but I knew it was possible. I also had my parents, so I never really thought of myself as different. My experience is almost contrary because everyone in my life worked in STEM, so I couldn’t really imagine doing anything else. I’m very fortunate, but it’s not everyone’s reality.
There are so few stories of Muslim women by Muslim women – and then there’s no experience beyond marriage or wearing the headscarf. I want to give an alternative, to show that there’s more to us than what we wear and who we marry.
UC: What’s your advice for young women wanting to pursue a STEM-based career?
Yassmin: Do it, 150 percent! Don’t let anybody limit what you’ve got. We, as women, can almost pre-emptively diminish ourselves, and that’s really dangerous. Always back yourself and back your friends, too: I have relied so much on the people who have backed me throughout my life.
Grab every opportunity tightly and run with it. I’m a big believer in taking every opportunity, however it comes. The world is unfair, so you have to be able to take what comes in your path and squeeze every bit of juice out of it because you don’t know how long that opportunity might last.
Originally published in Ultimate Careers magazine. Read the magazine and find your Ultimate Careers here.
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