Looking back on their undergraduate years, Michelle Liu (she/her) and Allie Kennington (they/them) wish there had been more on-campus support and mentorship for them as 2SLGBTQ+ engineering students.

As alumni, Liu (BASc ’18 and MASc ’20, civil engineering) and Kennington (BASc ’19 and MASc ’22, geological engineering), are now providing their support through the Liu-Kennington Award for the 2SLGBTQ+ Engineering Community, the first of its type for this specific group offered at any Faculty of Engineering in Canada. 

Launched last year, the $1,000 scholarship is awarded annually to an undergraduate student enrolled in year two, three or four in any Waterloo Engineering program.

Selection is based on positive contributions to the 2SLGBTQ+ community through extracurricular or volunteer involvement.

Committed to diversity and inclusion

As an undergraduate student, Kennington found Liu to be welcoming in her advocacy efforts for equity-seeking groups by encouraging students to become involved with various initiatives. 

“Michelle was eventually president of the departmental engineering undergraduate society and I was a class representative. She kept me on track by reminding me to come to meetings,” Kennington said. “It was her commitment to diversity and inclusion that ultimately brought us together.”

The couple is now living in Ottawa where Kennington is an environmental engineering specialist with SNC-Lavalin and Liu is pursuing both a law degree (JD) and an engineering PhD at the University of Ottawa.

Liu’s doctoral research is focused on highlighting the opportunities and challenges facing the engineering profession in addressing its urgent need for cultural change, a topic that earned her the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholarship and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Scholarship.

Still connected to Waterloo Engineering, Liu is the inaugural chair of the Recent Engineering Alumni Council (REAC), which represents more than 20,000 graduates from the last 10 years. 

Both Liu and Kennington regularly volunteer at Waterloo Engineering recruitment events and recently led the first-ever 2SLGBTQ+ breakout room for prospective Waterloo Engineering students at a Women in Engineering hangout. 

Allie Kennington and Michelle Lui

Allie Kennington, left, and Michelle Liu, centre, with Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell at at a Canada Foundation for Innovation event in Ottawa. 

Changing the conversation

It’s important for Liu and Kennington to change how they and others who identify as 2SLGBTQ+  are viewed and treated outside as well as inside the workplace.

“Engineers often respond to our 2SLGBTQ+ identities with ‘what you do in your spare time doesn’t matter at work’, and that is precisely the kind of marginalization that we need to move away from,” they said about their own experiences.

Imagine coming to work on Monday and everyone is talking about what they did with their partners and family over the weekend, but you are too uncomfortable or scared to share who you spent your weekend with.”

Creating an inclusive environment

Last year, Liu and Kennington described the introduction of a Waterloo Engineering role focused on diversity and inclusion as a turning point for the University’s 2SLGBTQ+ engineering community.

Mary Robinson (BASc '02 and MASc '10, chemical engineering), who in 2021 was appointed the first associate dean of outreach, equity and diversity, reached out to Liu to discuss diversity and inclusion in Waterloo Engineering, subjects they had previously chatted about when Liu was an undergraduate student.

In her role, Robinson said she wants to make sure Waterloo Engineering “is a place where people never need to feel they have to check a part of who they are at the door.”

“My goal is to bring together the pockets of diversity, equity, inclusion and Indigenization activity happening around the Faculty to create an environment where everyone, including all faculty, staff and students, can be their full authentic selves,” she said.

Liu intends to remind members of the engineering community that their work is an applied science and each engineer brings their own perspectives and biases in applying this science.

“I want to use the milestones I have reached to empower other equity-seeking engineering students to blaze their own path toward change,” Liu said.

Diversity and equity support groups

There are a number of programs and clubs specific to supporting diversity and equity in Waterloo Engineering including Women in Engineering, EngiQueers, the Canadian branch of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the University’s chapter of a national organization of Black engineering students and professionals. 

Earlier this year, William Woodworth, also known as Elder Bill, was appointed Elder in Residence for the Faculty. Engineering students, staff and faculty are welcome to book a remote or in-person appointment with Elder Bill

Across campus, there are also a number of support groups and services for students with diverse backgrounds, abilities, and interests.

Main photo is of Michelle Liu, left, and Allie Kennington, right. Photographer: Bonnie Findley