Dalhousie University’s new Rhodes Scholar paves way for more diverse engineering field

·5 min read

From a young age, Sierra Sparks has been passionate about math and science.

First, it led her to pursue a biomedical engineering degree at Dalhousie University. In her four years spent at the school, she says some people have doubted her abilities because of the fact that she’s a Black woman — only motivating her to continue following her passion and to prove them wrong.

Her persistence has led her to achieve a near-perfect GPA, multiple awards and hold various leadership positions with Dalhousie’s Engineering Society and the Dalhousie Women in Engineering Society. As a student leader, she’s strived to pave the way for more people of colour and women to pursue engineering and other fields that have historically lacked diversity.

Sparks’ academics, extracurriculars, leadership and community impact have now led her to her next journey: a fully paid Rhodes Scholarship covering travel, study and expenses for two years at the University of Oxford in England next fall. She is one of 11 students from across Canada to be named a Rhodes Scholar this year and Dalhousie’s 92nd Rhodes Scholar.

Here is her conversation with The Chronicle Herald about the opportunity.

How does it feel to be named a Rhodes Scholar?

It still feels really surreal. I found out late Saturday night and ever since I haven’t been able to stop smiling. It’s just such a dream come true and it’s been an amazing whirlwind of a few days. I’m just very, very excited to be starting my studies next fall at Oxford and to have this really amazing opportunity.

The Rhodes Scholarship looks beyond students’ academics and at their overall contributions to their schools. Can you tell us a bit about how you’ve gotten involved at Dalhousie over the past four years?

For me, one of the biggest ways that I’ve been involved is with the engineering community at Dalhousie. One of my now best friends convinced me to join the Engineering Society in the first week of school, so ever since then, I’ve really enjoyed being involved with the engineering community and being able to meet with high school students and really talk to them, especially students from underrepresented backgrounds, that’s been a passion of mine, telling them about engineering and telling them it's something they can do because it’s very much a male-dominated field and it’s something I’ve been passionate about, working with the Women in Engineering Society, to increase the number of women in engineering and in science, technology and math as well.

In your time at Dalhousie, you’ve been a strong advocate for diversity in engineering. What do you hope the field will look like in the next, let’s say five or 10 years?

I do believe that change does take a while to happen, but what I’d like to see is that more from an institutional level, at a lot of these Canadian universities and really across the world as well that are teaching engineering and teaching all of these typically not very diverse fields, I really want them to be making their schools and their classrooms as welcoming as possible. I think that it’s really important that we communicate all of the amazing things that you can do as an engineer or as an engineering student. I know that for me, personally, it’s been some of the best four years of my life and I just really hope that everyone who’s even thinking about maybe doing engineering feels that they’re welcome in that community.

And I think in five or 10 years, I would love to see more people from underrepresented backgrounds, such as people of colour and women in the profession, and it’s really great to see whenever there’s more diversity in the profession, because I think that really strengthens the profession and strengthens the classroom as well. You’re able to get the best ideas when you have the most diverse teams.

What are you looking forward to most when you head off to England?

I’m definitely really, really excited to get to meet with the other Rhodes Scholars. I’ve been reading some of their bios and I’ve been so inspired by some of the things they’re doing at their communities and at their schools and all across the world. It’s going to be really, really cool to get to meet with them and bounce ideas off of them and really learn from their leadership.

And I’m really hoping to continue to develop my skills as a leader and as a focused thinker in engineering.

Lastly, do you have any advice for other students?

My advice would be to keep your doors open, but do what you want to do.

As a Black woman in engineering, that’s not something that you always see and it’s one of the underrepresented groups in engineering, and so along the journey, there’s been some prejudices and people maybe not believing that it’s something that I could do or people in my same situation would be able to do.

And so I would say to anyone who is thinking about doing engineering or anything at large, if someone tells you not to do something, use that as your motivation to just prove them wrong. That’s kind of been my philosophy throughout this whole journey and all the people who maybe didn’t think I would be able to do this, here I am now, really enjoying my studies and just really blessed with this opportunity and to be able to work with such an amazing university community at Dalhousie and just have such an amazing support from my family and my community.

So definitely, whenever someone tells you you can’t do something, don’t let that stop you.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Noushin Ziafati, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald