• Shreya Parekh

SPOTLIGHT: Meet Natalie Cheung - Civil Engineering, Sabbatical in Togo & Zambia to Changing Careers

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

This month's spotlight is on the fabulous Natalie Cheung. From graduating and working in Civil Engineering, taking a gap year to helping more girls get involved in STEM. Here's her fantastic journey.

Natalie's journey, challenges & how she overcame them:

Natalie's time at secondary school was focused on her interest in STEM. Her classes were all female, that was the way her school did things, it wasn't a girl’s school, but they taught girls and boys separately, up until the sixth form. She was always interested in STEM, but her perception of different careers and STEM careers were seen more positively. "No one explicitly said this to me, but it was also portrayed as, if you can do maths then you study maths if you can't do maths, you become a lawyer or do something else...I don't know if anyone ever said those words to me, but that's definitely the sentiment that I held, which isn't correct". Natalie went through her school life very much interested in technology and considered studying computer science following her computing A level, and other types of engineering before she landed on civil engineering, which is actually not something she had heard of until she was sixteen. "That's always something that I encourage people to tell young people in my role, a lot of teenagers think that you have to know what job you want to do for the rest of your life. But I didn't know my university subjects. I'd never heard of it until I was sixteen. And then I went on to do something else. And so, I think there are opportunities for changes that we wouldn't expect, within quite a short space of time."

Some people start talking about their career after the point of graduation. But the things that led Natalie to get her first role were some internships that she was able to get in the civil engineering sector, which is what she studied at the University of Manchester. Natalie then started her post-graduation career at a global design consultancy, she was there as a civil engineer in their Infrastructure and Transportation team, specifically working on projects. When she first started working there, she was quite excited to join. But then, "due to a lot of management changes at the time, there wasn't actually work for me to do - they had taken on a lot of graduates (about 400) across the UK."

"For the first year and a half, I had always been asking for different projects and more work and that I would be happy to move offices across the country or into another team temporarily to gain more experience in those roles". It was then suggested to her to apply for quite a large volunteering program for young adults, which she then applied for. "I'm glad that I did, because it's opened up a lot of opportunities for me in terms of getting to meet people, and also starting my public speaking, freelance work, which is not something that I had expected to be going into. But I think the pivotal part of that gap year/sabbatical, is thinking about the value that I can add to a project and a team also now wanting to have a real impact in that way". The gap year wasn't a program that the design consultancy specifically told them to apply for. Natalie just asked her Regional Director, if she could take a period of unpaid leave.

It was originally for a three-month voluntary placement, not one year. "I didn't know the word sabbatical until much further down the line when HR got involved to say, Oh, actually, you need to sign all this stuff before you leave. And we expect you to come back, which was fine. And then once I had completed my first few months of placement, I requested an extension to extend that sabbatical to a year so that I would be able to reapply to the volunteer program as a team leader, but also some travelling time in between."

So off Natalie went to Togo & Zambia to volunteer & travel overseas, "I was working on projects outside of my comfort zone, around business consultancy for start-ups for a renewable energy enterprise, and also leading a team to deliver education and health projects. And so that was quite an eye-opener for me, as you can imagine, particularly in terms of what I was able to contribute as an individual to their projects. That was a real eye-opener for me for when I came back to my original grad role". This led Natalie to be more proactive in seeking out opportunities. "I changed to work in a different role as a deputy project manager on some of the projects within the same team". Natalie, then ultimately decided to leave after the graduate scheme had completed, and so she made quite a big switch to change into her current role (which is her last day today)."

There were 400 grads in her year. So, she was replaceable or a small piece of a big machine. Whereas she knew that if she hadn't been there in her team, particularly in Togo as a team leader, the project wouldn't have gone ahead in the way that it did. "That's when I started thinking about having a more mission-driven role."

STEM learning, which is the organisation that she worked for (at the time of the interview), is an organisation that she had been volunteering with since she was an undergraduate student, where she helped to deliver the volunteer program. "Being able to use my experience as someone who volunteered as both a university student and an early career professional, to help to deliver the projects here, including recruiting volunteers, delivery training, hosting a lot of events, particularly now online...and helping to ultimately improve STEM education. So even though I don't work directly with young people myself, I know that my role has that impact...This is quite different from civil engineering, as the projects there was long term, and these are shorter-term where you see the results a lot quicker". In March, Natalie moved to a new role with Reed in Partnership, where she will also be working with schools, careers, education and volunteers, based in London, and hopefully, learn more about the employability world, and what it means to support someone into work."

What key challenges do you think you faced in your journey.

"I guess my first big challenge in my career was deciding to change role because, in the civil engineering career, all the steps in your career were very clear, basically the next 40 years until retirement would be mapped out, and taking a step off that ladder was a really big decision. And something that I found tough in my time there is being able to fully express how I felt because, on paper, I had everything in the right place, I was, on a big Grad scheme - ones that my friends were trying to get on to, and also being able to work on projects in other parts of the country. It was very much the top choice of what you should do, or this is what you should try to get after graduating. I felt I wasn't sure about whether my experience was the right thing for me, I didn't feel like I could really express that to my peers, because on paper it was what like - what do you have to complain about. So those were definitely two challenges I experienced."

When you were at university, studying civil engineering, was there a lot of diversity on your course?

"Like with many universities, there's a lot of international students. So there were a lot of Asian people, not just from the UK, but also from overseas. But as it has been, for a long time now the gender split is not great. I think it was around ten or fifteen per cent in my year, and that varies depending on what STEM subjects to even what type of engineering you study. Hopefully, that's something that is getting better now. But ultimately, it's not just about how many female students are in your class, but also the environment that you're in, are you fully supported by your tutors, academics, and by those who are doing the graduate recruitment processes? So, I've always felt fully supported, but of course, it was a strange feeling to sometimes be one of only a few women and that's something which I really had to grapple with going back to when I was at school, going from being in all-girl classes, and then in my sixth form and my final school year, I was the only girl in all of my classes just because of the subjects that I chose - maths, computing and physics. So that was a big change for me and I remember finding that strange because it shouldn't be that different, but it was."

What solutions do you think worked for you, in terms of dealing with any challenges that you came across?

"The key thing that I've learned early in my career is to watch out for yourself because I definitely expected that if I join a company that has such a set-in place graduate scheme, the work that I need to do will be given to me and I would have the support, but actually, I needed to go out there and look for it myself, which is how I ended up changing role and being a deputy project manager on my projects. If I hadn't gone out and asked for that, I could have been working on things that weren't in line with my own career goals and I really think that that's the case even outside of the organisation. So, you have to look out for yourself, because even though you might have your line manager, other sponsors and mentors or other people in the business they will always have a different reason for placing you on a project and perhaps that's not in line with your own career goals and values."

What key lessons or tips do you have for anyone looking to navigate their career choices?

"I think something really valuable is putting yourself out of your comfort zone. There were times I did this during my sabbatical, volunteering overseas and also within my career working here in London. But that's really where I felt like I learned more about the industry I'm in and about myself - self-awareness and my confidence. Some of these skills are quite difficult to evidence...you're not likely to see self-awareness and confidence on the job description, but they are still really, really important. And resilience as well, being able to stretch myself...I think that's valuable because the fact that people might go into multiple careers throughout their lifetime there will be times when you're outside of your comfort zone, and the sooner we can get comfortable with that feeling the better."

What do you love most about your job?

"This will be relevant for both my previous and current job...I like supporting people who are working in a business or another organisation, and they have an interest in a project that will impact the community, particularly young people when they haven't realised or put the pieces together to create and deliver something, so the favourite part of my job is helping them to bring that idea into a full run project that can have the impact that they initially wanted and being the helping hand and support to bring that into fruition."

How would you define success?

"That's a very tough question...Something which defines success for me is whether you are happy within yourself, so it's not about other people's perceptions or about your job title/industry or how your parents are perceiving you. It's actually about how excited you are to produce the work that you're doing regardless of what you have to do to get there, if you're not happy with the work that you're doing, and particularly the results, then I wouldn't say that you have led a successful project life."

Who would you say inspires you?

"Definitely inspired by Chanel Miller who's an artist and writer. And I know this might sound a bit strange, but she was the lady who was sexually assaulted as part of a high-profile Brock Turner case. Ultimately, she had quite a difficult story, where she was sexually assaulted - it was anonymous in all the court cases and it was a very high-profile public case. She then eventually came out with her name with a book called "Know My Name". It was very much like turning something very difficult and reclaiming her voice and telling her story in her own way, she was an advocate for a lot of things. She's also Asian American, which is something that you might not know, just from hearing her name. But when that came out, I remember it was a difficult but important story to hear and she was willing to share her story."

If you could choose anyone as a mentor, who would you choose?

"I'm very lucky that already have a bunch of great mentors. But someone who I would appreciate as a mentor is someone called Nadya Okamoto. She's also an Asian American and she's in a lot of youth activism spaces due to her work around menstruation and has started her own huge organisation and is very proactive within that space and she brings a lot of initiative and can create change. So that's someone from who I feel like, I could learn a lot...I think she's younger than me, but she's achieved a lot and it's continuing to grow."

What's the last book you read?

"I'm currently re-reading The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - I'm also trying to diversify the books I read and I'm currently making a list of Eastern/Southeast Asian authors who are publishing books this year because I couldn't find any online.

I'd also recommend "Know My Name" by Chanel Miller, as I've already mentioned and in terms of another nonfiction, I enjoyed Marie Forleo's "Everything Is Figureoutable"."