By Lillian Lema

As a young person in Rwanda, Gisele Mukundwa thought about becoming a doctor because of her love for children and her passion for helping others. However, she changed her mind as soon as she took her first biology course in college, and enrolled in classes in some other fields instead. That was how she learned that she could follow her passion for helping others and stay within the areas of math and technology. “I’ve always had an interest in math – how machines work, how things operate – so I thought engineering would be the best fit for me,” she said.

Mukundwa is a recent graduate of the University of Southern Maine where she received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in May 2020. She is the first in her family to have attained this level of education, a journey she describes as not always easy.

At age 18, Mukundwa left her home country of Rwanda with her family and moved to Utah. While in Utah, she had to repeat her senior year of high school because she could not yet speak English very well.

After living in Utah for a year, Mukundwa moved to Maine. Soon after, she enrolled for the fall 2015 semester at Southern Maine Community College, where she started with a major in biotechnology. When she realized that biology was not a field she liked, instead of giving up, she tried various engineering classes.

“Giving up was not an option,” she said. “My interests pushed me towards engineering, so I took classes within different engineering fields, and my circuits classes stood out to me the most.” She concluded that electrical engineering was right for her, and she continued on that path once she enrolled at University of Southern Maine in the fall of 2017. During her college years, Mukundwa had doubts about her major, as well as her abilities as a student. “Back home you say, ‘I want to be a doctor or engineer.’ But in the United States there are many options within each field, so you are asked, ‘What type of doctor or engineer do you want to be?’ ” she said.

Mukundwa felt that her American classmates had an advantage over her. “Back home, we don’t have the privilege to have accessibility to technology as often as we would like, compared to an American student who has had much more hands-on experience and knows about all the opportunities in this field,” she explained.

She often felt overwhelmed, and as if she was behind the learning curve.

“People grow up here, in America, with all this technology and resources available to them,” Mukundwa said. In Rwanda, only one small computer lab was available for a class of about 25 to 30 students, which was her only source of computers at boarding school.

She explained that a lack of familiarity with all the different areas of study in each field is partly due to differences in economic development. In the U.S., there might be interest in finding another planet to live on, but in many other nations, providing running water or sustainable housing is the priority.

Mukundwa advises other foreign students with her background to try different areas in their chosen fields of study. “There is the opportunity in America to nourish those interests and make a career out of it,” she said. She gradually learned that her interests in electrical engineering focused on circuits, robotics, controls, and electronics, so she pushed to pursue more opportunities in those areas.

She interned for the Baker Company, volunteered for STEM Sisters, and participated in a research project at USM through an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program in which she designed an acoustic sensor that mimics the hearing abilities of ormia ochracea flies. “If my partner and I could make something that mimics the hearing abilities of these flies, then we could contribute the findings and research to create better hearing aids for people,” Mukundwa said. She feels very fortunate to have been able to participate in this research project. She took responsibility for new challenges in designing prototypes, and was encouraged to see herself as a leader, especially in a male-dominated field like engineering.

Throughout college and her various internships, she became discouraged by the uneven ratio between men and women. “I was one of the only two women students in my engineering classes and the only Black student,” she said. “If there is a time for women to be rebellious and courageous, it is now!”

She took her newfound confidence and skills with her as she transitioned to her first post-grad internship this past summer at ABB Inc, a global technology company with a manufacturing facility in Auburn. During her time at ABB, she manufactured electrical tools and components, which she described as an “eye-opening experience.” However, Mukundwa’s position made clear to her that manufacturing was not an area of electrical engineering she wanted to pursue, and within a couple of months she decided to look for a job that involved less manufacturing and more circuit training.

But finding a job during a pandemic proved difficult and stressful. “There is this expectation to graduate, find a job, and live a good life,” she said. “But then the pandemic hit, people aren’t hiring, and we all want to be safe from COVID.”

Mukundwa used this time to take classes and learn about other engineering software and skills, so that when an opportunity came up she would be prepared.

Through networking, she learned about a job opportunity at DoJo Research & Consulting that involved circuit design and printed circuit board prototyping. “My position at DoJo is definitely more of what I’m looking for, and it has made me realize I still have a long way to go,” she said.

As she continues to pursue her career as an electrical engineer, Mukundwa wants to expand her skills and abilities to design electrical products that can help make peoples’ lives easier to manage, such as communication, transportation, and agriculture, and maybe even contribute to the creation of something completely new.

One thing she will continue to remind herself – which she hopes others will, too, especially during these times of uncertainty – is to never give up, no matter what. “Even if the journey is slow, keep moving, enjoy the process, and most importantly have faith.”