Eileen Atieno (MEng 2018): “All of the doors were closing – but I just needed that one door to open.”

Eileen Atieno (MEng 2018) has achieved an incredible amount during her time at the University. But before she could embark on her Bristol journey, there were significant barriers that she had to overcome.

At the age of 11 Eileen moved from her home in Kenya and began studying at a secondary school in London. She achieved top grades but when she tried to apply for university, Eileen found that her visa status meant she didn’t qualify for student finance. Not one to be put off by a challenge, Eileen applied to almost a hundred bursary and funding opportunities, eventually securing one which meant she could join the University of Bristol as an Aerospace Engineering student.

After graduating in 2017, Eileen began a PhD in Advanced Composites and is now at the University exploring the mechanical properties of polymer composites. Alongside her academic work, Eileen has advocated for greater representation for Black students across her faculty and has set up outreach programmes to inspire young Black children in the Bristol area to study STEM subjects. We caught up with her to learn more about what motivates her to keep pushing for change.

When did you first realise that you wanted to study Aerospace Engineering?  

I was about four years old when I took my first trip on a plane. I remember seeing the plane close up and being really taken aback and excited. When you’re standing on the ground and you see a plane flying in the sky it looks so small – but seeing it in person for the first time was just amazing. Basically since then I’ve known I wanted to work in the aviation industry. I soon found out that becoming a pilot would be difficult because the costs involved are massive. So I thought that aerospace engineering would be a good option because you can study the design and manufacturing of planes and then learn to fly on the side – although I haven’t gotten onto that yet!

Your journey to higher education was challenging. How have you stayed motivated along the way?  

When I was trying to get to university, there were a lot of people who told me: ‘You need to give that dream up, you’re facing quite a lot of barriers and you need to adjust your expectations’. I had the grades, but people were still telling me that I needed to think about doing something else. I kept on saying, ‘Absolutely not. That’s not going to happen. I’m only 18 years old and you can’t just kill someone’s dream, especially when they’ve worked so hard to achieve it.’

At that time, all of the doors were closing but I knew I just needed that one door to open. That’s kind of my mentality. If I’ve worked hard to get something, I have to get it. There’s nothing to stop me but myself.

Whilst studying for your PhD, you set up a Black Mentors programme for secondary school students in Bristol. Tell us more about that.

I set the programme up in 2018 with the help of my supervisor Steve Eichhorn who had links with City Academy, a school in East Bristol. Representation of Black students in higher education isn’t great, and in engineering it’s particularly bad. So we came up with this idea that we would try to motivate local Black students to study STEM subjects. We aimed the programme at students in years 8 to 10, as they’re in that crucial time where you pick subjects before going on to apprenticeships or A-Levels.

We invited Black engineers and scientists to come and speak to the students to inspire them and show them what they could achieve. A lot of times when Black students see or hear these talks, they’re coming from people who don’t look like them – and it can be harder to relate to someone who doesn’t look like you. Many of the mentors on the programme also have similar backgrounds to the students that we’re mentoring which is important.

Often when you come from a less well-off background you get to a point where life just takes over. There’s so much going on for you that you can end up on the wrong path. Engaging with those students reminded me of being that age when you have to decide what choices to make. At that time there was no one that would tell us, ‘Okay, so I went to university and now I’m in engineering’. So seeing those students who were engaged, curious and wanted to learn more was just a great feeling

During your studies you also set up the Black Engineers Society. What prompted you to do that?

When I started my undergraduate back in 2013, I was the only Black student on my course. I remember coming to University and thinking, what’s going on? I was baffled. But at that time, Black students were just not in Bristol. You’d walk down the street and if you saw another Black person you’d be like – ‘hey can we be friends?’ The numbers now still aren’t great, but they seem to be slowly improving.

When I became a postgraduate student, I would speak to my Black undergraduate friends who were studying engineering and I realised that a lot of them didn’t know each other. Engineering is a very demanding course and some students won’t have time to attend the African & Caribbean society’s events. So I thought, why don’t I create something in-house in the Faculty of Engineering so that we can network, help each other and talk about our experiences? The things that we go through as Black engineering students are very unique and I thought that it was time to create a network where we could do something about representation and the changes that we want to see at the University.

Last year, the University launched its Black Bristol Scholarship programme, which will provide scholarships for 130 Black and mixed-Black heritage students over the next four years. What are your thoughts on the programme?

I think it will be great – especially for Black students who want to study for postgraduate degrees but who might not have access to student loans. In terms of funding there aren’t that many avenues available for scholarships so I think this programme will have a positive impact and lead to more Black students applying to Bristol, even at an undergraduate level. But we do need to think about how these students will navigate the University once they’re here, because it’s still a very white place.

What do you plan on doing after your PhD?  

A lot of people in my department go on to work at the University or in academia. But for me my journey in academia has opened my eyes to a lot of the politics involved. Being a Black woman in academia is very difficult. I’ve experienced positives along the way but because there are very few Black female professors out there’s a lot of pressure and expectations that are placed on you. So for me, my post-PhD plan is to try to work in the industry and see what comes from that.

What’s been your proudest moment during your time at Bristol?

I shall answer that when I get my PhD!

Click here to find out more about the Black Bristol Scholarship programme. You can also find out more about the Black Engineers Society on the Bristol SU website.

 

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