Michelle Liu and Allie Kennington were thrilled when Waterloo Engineering introduced a senior position intended to ensure all students feel respected and empowered to pursue their aspirations. 

They both feel the new role of associate dean of outreach, equity and diversity will make a difference to the Faculty’s 2SLGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities. 

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” says Liu, who holds undergraduate and master’s degrees in Civil Engineering from Waterloo. 

Liu, a current joint law student and engineering doctoral student at the University of Ottawa, and Kennington, a civil engineering doctoral student at Waterloo, wish there had been leadership support for 2SLGBTQ+ students when they were undergraduate students several years ago.  

“There really wasn’t a lot of emphasis on inclusion nor conversations about identities, such as race and sexual orientation,” says Liu. “There was no recognition that different identities can impact student experience in the classroom and on work terms.” 

Some of Liu and Kennington’s undergraduate co-op terms were spent on construction sites where they loved the work but found it challenging to fit in with their co-workers.  

“There’s a culture in the industry in which it feels as though each aspect of you that is different from the dominant group on a construction site counts as a strike against you,” says Kennington. “And that’s on top of being the new person and being the engineer in a white hard hat.” 

Liu found it was especially difficult to be a queer engineering master’s student. 

“There was a lot of microaggression, far more than I had experienced in undergrad,” she says. “It included ignorant comments about the 2SLGBTQ+ community, laughing at the pride flag on my desk, and more, all of which were explained away as cultural differences or misunderstandings. But they weren’t.”  

A turning point 

Michelle Liu (left) and Allie Kennington (right) and a good friend enjoy canoeing on the Ottawa River near Rockcliffe.

Michelle Liu (left) and Allie Kennington (right) and a good friend enjoy canoeing on the Ottawa River near Rockcliffe.

Liu and Kennington say the creation of a role focused on diversity and inclusion is a turning point for Waterloo Engineering and are pleased with the choice of Mary Robinson (BASc '02, MASc '10) as its first associate dean of outreach, equity and diversity. 

Robinson, a chemical engineering alumnus who was recently associate director of Waterloo Engineering’s First Year office, reached out to Liu earlier this year to discuss diversity and inclusion in Waterloo Engineering, subjects they’d previously chatted about when Liu was an undergraduate student. 

“We talked about the vision of Waterloo Engineering as a Faculty that values these issues and takes steps to make improvements,” says Liu. “Symbolic change is only the first step, but it makes me feel hopeful for future students.”

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

Since she took on Waterloo Engineering’s outreach, equity and diversity portfolio in May of this year, Robinson has been spending time looking at some of the “grassroot” activities and organizations undergraduates already have in place. 

“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 says. 

Shifting the mindset   

One way Liu and Kennington are empowering 2SLGBTQ+ students themselves is through offering the Liu-Kennington Award for the 2SLGBTQ+ Engineering Community, the first scholarship for this specific group offered at any Faculty of Engineering in Canada. 

Launched this year, the $1,000 scholarship will be provided 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.  

Currently living in Ottawa, Kennington and Liu met in first year and reconnected as Waterloo Engineering graduate students.  

Kennington says Liu was very welcoming in her advocacy efforts and encouraged her to become involved with the departmental engineering undergraduate society.  

“Michelle was eventually president of the society, and I was a class rep,” Kennington explains, adding with a laugh, “Michelle was always reminding me to come to meetings when I was busy or slacking off.” 

Liu continues her leadership within Waterloo Engineering as the inaugural chair of a new alumni council representing more than 20,000 Waterloo Engineering graduates from the last 10 years. 

 “We need to shift the mindset of those currently in the playing field,” Liu says about her plans as council chair. “Otherwise, we risk having new generations of engineers adopting and maintaining the status quo.” 

With more than 30,000 students, the University of Waterloo is home to an incredible community of people with diverse backgrounds, abilities, and interests. Committed to creating a safe, inclusive space for everyone, the University supports a wide range of groups and services.  

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