Rawan Osman, Fourth Year, Electrical Engineering

People become engineers because they have a passion for creating knowledge and technologies that serve society. UVA Engineering’s "For Good" series shares their voices.

Rawan Osman, Jefferson Scholar, Computer Engineering, mentor, Center for Diversity in Engineering

Throughout my life, I’ve witnessed powerful examples of what it means to give wholly of yourself in service to others. My family, originally from Sudan, immigrated to the United States when I was a child. Growing up, I’ve been inspired by the sacrifice and dedication of the adults in my Sudanese community. Because of their remarkable impact on me, I’m the person I am today: I’m proud of my identity, and I’m assured in my ability to succeed despite all of the oppressive factors that come with being racialized Black, a woman, and an immigrant in America. It’s because of this community support that I am passionate about serving others from marginalized backgrounds - both in the United States and abroad.

The most powerful example of service in my life is my mom. Every single day, she pours herself into caring for my siblings, our community, and her work. She’d walk miles a day to her job at Rite-Aid to get additional income, and was determined to get us out of subsidized housing and into a better education system. The weekend wasn’t a time off for her - it was a time for her and other Sudanese parents to teach me and other Sudanese children Arabic, the Quran, cultural studies, and more. She instilled in us a sense of pride about our culture so that we had an understanding and appreciation of our roots.  Even now, she will not rest until all others have equal access to education and opportunities through the nonprofit she leads, Sudanese Education Supporting Organization (SEDSO). Inspired by her example, I’m driven to continue doing all I can to give back to my communities.

My motivation to serve also comes from battling intolerance and discrimination. I’ve been put in positions where I’ve been made to feel like an outsider, and I’ve heard people make xenophobic comments. I would walk into my mom’s classroom where she taught math in public schools and witness parents being rude to her because of her accent. I’ve seen fellow educators dismiss my mom’s teaching just because of her perceived identity. I’ve heard racial slurs thrown toward my family, and been subject to similar situations myself. In these instances, my family has chosen to persevere through intolerance, humbly show our worth, and give back to others. I’m grateful for the pride and compassion that has been instilled in me, which enables me to carry on in the face of grief and pain.

Just as I am irked by facing certain disadvantages, it’s heartbreaking to me to observe other people lack the same resources and opportunities I am granted. I strongly believe that the greatest opposition to love and support is apathy. Maybe I can turn a blind eye to others’ challenges because I have the privilege to not experience their trauma. But apathy is a woeful misuse of my privilege. And so, I strive to empathize, to give back, and to support people through difficulties – especially those of marginalized identities and in low-and-middle income countries.

To this day, my culture and community are central parts of my identity. They influence all parts of my life, from my motivations to my passions, my life decisions and even my hobbies. I chose to study electrical engineering at UVA because of my experiences burdened by daily power outages while spending summers in Sudan. I came to UVA with a fascination for renewable energy and ambition to learn how decentralized power systems can be used as sustainable infrastructure that improves the lives of people like my family in Sudan. 

One way I try to do this at UVA Engineering is by uplifting peers who come from underrepresented backgrounds. Two of my most fulfilling involvements have been through UVA Engineering’s Center for Diversity in Engineering (CDE) Bridge Program and through peer advising with the UVA Office of African-American Affairs. The Bridge Program is a summer program where students from underrepresented identities in engineering spend several weeks getting adjusted to the University and becoming acquainted with resources that can lead to their success. As a Bridge student, I felt valued and was given tools to thrive. One of my greatest mentors and role models, Jason Jones, UVA Engineering’s former Director of Inclusive Excellence and Applied Research, inspired me most. And so, as a counselor, I invested myself in paying this forward. I loved welcoming the next class of Bridge students. I wanted them to know from the moment they set foot on Grounds that there would be a friendly face for them, someone who has gone through the ups and downs they will experience, and who will be here to help them and support them through every step. It has been a privilege to occupy this mentorship role for six Black first-year students as an Office of African-American Affairs peer advisor, as well.

While the COVID pandemic has thrown a major wrench in our college careers, I have found that my communities are the key to carrying on. It's challenging studying from home in Maryland, and I sorely miss running into Bridge friends at the CDE and grabbing meals with my advisees at the Pav. However, I continue working with various community development efforts at UVA. Through UVA Multicultural Student Services, I serve on the executive team for the Muslim Institute for Leadership and Empowerment. Our team has just finished leading a virtual institute on leadership development for a cohort of 30 first years, second years, and transfer students.

It’s from my engagements in these realms that I continue to recognize the importance of diversity in engineering. Diversity leads to greater innovations and a better understanding of the people our technology will go on to affect. If we, as engineers, are creating a product that serves various populations, but we don't have representation from those communities, then our products may lead to adverse and harmful outcomes. Yet, more importantly, there is the ethical motivation to increase diversity. At UVA, we do not seek to only be great, but also good. Creating a more diverse and equitable engineering school is a key part of good progress for our University. I optimistically look forward to greater unified efforts and allyship in movements for equity.

In one of my favorite quotes by poet and activist Audre Lorde, she shares that "…what we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other…with the particular strengths of our individual identities.” Gordon Hinckley makes a similar point that “…we are not on Earth to see how important we can become, but to see how much difference we can make in the life of others.” My time on Earth, with all my experiences of joy and hardship, is uniquely shaped by my identity. It is this identity, along with investment from my mother, my Sudanese-American community, and the UVA Engineering School, that has cultivated my passions and motivations. I am grateful to understand the value of diversity and inclusion and to have shaped positive spaces where dozens of my peers at UVA feel welcome and are better equipped to thrive. I look forward to a life of service where I will continue to support underserved communities for the improvement of our world. After graduation, I hope to work in global development, with a focus on clean energy and power grid development in low- and middle-income countries. By working in the energy sector, I’ll help build a future where my family in Sudan doesn’t face daily power outages, and where quality of life is improved for all.

Rawan Osman, Jefferson Scholar, Computer Engineering, mentor, Center for Diversity in Engineering