The UW award honours Pearl Sullivan, Waterloo’s former dean of engineering and the first woman to hold the position. Open to engineering undergraduates at the end of their degree, the award presents $50,000 to a student who demonstrated leadership during their time at UW.
Chakma has taken up several leadership positions both on and off-campus, and has particularly worked to inspire young women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Much of this work is done through her role as president of UW’s Women in Engineering Undergraduate Student Committee. Not seeing representation within the engineering faculty during her first year inspired her to create the committee.
“You need that community,” she said. “I think that would be one of the biggest highlights [of my degree] — starting that committee from scratch, starting it in the middle of a pandemic, and then trying to push it forward.”
Chakma noted that from a young age she had been inspired to help others: “I have always had this notion of [needing] to use whatever opportunities that I have for the better.”
Through Girl Guides of Canada, she attended a leadership conference in Taiwan before the pandemic. She noted that this event was crucial to her journey as a leader: “I was their delegate for this conference, and I think that really catapulted my leadership experience.”
She also became a residence don in her fourth year, where she supported fellow undergraduate students. “I think that was the best decision I could have ever made,” Chakma remarked. “[A]s a don you get to see things from a different lens.”
Chakma says that the award will help her pursue more of these leadership and advocacy opportunities. “I have the opportunity now to use that money towards things that I’m passionate about,” she explained. “One of my lifelong dreams has been to create a nonprofit organization or an initiative — a social, entrepreneurial creation of some kind — to move forward and help people along the way in developing countries, especially back home where my parents and my family [are] from.”
Chakma explained that her family comes from a “small village in Bangladesh”, saying, “I’m very fortunate to be in the place where I am right now, and that’s because my … mom and dad had the great fortune of [possessing] the opportunity to go to school.”
The award money will also help Chakma with future academic endeavours, such as the master’s program in systems design engineering she plans to begin in January. Before then, she’ll be completing an internship and taking some time off to rest. Chakma said she hopes to be “spending a lot of time with family, traveling, getting to do some of the things that I didn’t get to do over the last five years.”
To students who are getting started in their STEM journey, Chakma offered this advice: “I would say consistently try to put yourself at the end of your comfort zone and the beginning of your danger zone.”
“Don’t say that you can’t do something just because you’ve never done it, or your friends don’t want to do it,” she said. “Just sign up for it, and who knows? It might open the doors for a whole other set of interests, passions, and you might meet new people in that journey as well.”