Navigating Borders and Nurturing Interdisciplinary Perspectives: Reflections and Advice for International Graduate Students with Diana Bairaktarova

Diana Bairaktarova, Virginia Tech, The US

My journey as an engineer and engineering educator and researcher has been intertwined with the experiences of countless professionals, academics, undergraduate and graduate students from all over the globe. These encounters have enriched my perspective on education, cultural diversity, and the transformative power of global collaboration. In this narrative, I share insights gained from these experiences and offer advice to international graduate students embarking on their academic endeavors.

Reflection on creative experiences

I grew up in Bulgaria during the grey times of the “Iron curtain” era but my world was painted with vibrant colors of curiosity and creativity.

Raised by progressive and supportive parents, I was gifted the freedom to explore and self-discover my passions. In the charm of my family’s home, I found solace in the embrace of words and numbers – poetry danced through my mind like whispered secrets, and geometry revealed the elegance hidden within shapes. But it was not just the intangible allure of poetry and mathematics that captured my heart; it was also the allure of objects that whispered tales of their history. The attic of my parents’ house became a treasure trove of forgotten artefacts. A pottery wheel, its surface kissed by dust, carried the traces of my dad’s dreams. Textbooks, once wielded by eager minds, now rested in quiet contemplation. Each discovery ignited a spark within my imagination, illuminating not only the past but also my own path forward.

With charcoal and paper, I painted my visions of the world, capturing its essence with each stroke. But because of the current regime my dream of attending art school remained unfulfilled. Undeterred, I embarked on a new journey, navigating the corridors of mathematics and engineering, where logic and precision took center stage. As the world around me evolved, I found myself straddling two worlds—the structured beauty of numbers and the ethereal dance of artistic expression. I channeled my artistic sensibilities into my engineering pursuits, crafting solutions that were not just functional but also elegant in their simplicity. I had become a mechanical engineer, melding my love for geometry, objects, and creative problem-solving. My parents’ unwavering support and my own determination had woven a unique tapestry of opportunities.

 Beyond expectations: Becoming an engineer

In the Technical University of Sofia, I embarked on a journey that would shape my life in unforeseen ways. Despite facing gender biases that loomed like shadows, I had resolved never to regret my decision to study mechanical engineering. My studies through the rigorous degree program were marked by both accomplishments and trials. I marveled at the mechanisms that powered the world around me and relished the challenges posed by complex equations and design projects. Yet, navigating a landscape dominated by skeptical eyes was no easy feat. My determination often collided with the prejudices of some engineering professors. Dubbed “the girl” in condescending whispers, I and my fellow female students were believed to be unfit for the realm of engineering solely due to our gender. Conversations were withheld, support seemed scarce, and doubts were sown like seeds. However, my spirit was unyielding. Rather than let these obstacles deter me, I channeled my frustration into fuel for my ambitions. Each dismissal, each skeptical glance, only intensified my resolve. I saw these challenges not as roadblocks but as steppingstones toward my goal. My hard work and perseverance began to shatter misconceptions and with every project I tackled, every exam I aced, I reclaimed my space in a field that had once doubted my presence. I had defied expectations, shattered stereotypes, and earned my place. My journey was not without its scars, but every challenge I overcame turned into a badge of honor. I knew that my accomplishment was not solely for myself; it was a victory for every aspiring engineer who had faced doubt because of their gender and upbringings.

 Crafting Dreams: The journey of an engineer-artisan

As I mentioned at the beginning of my narrative, from a younger age, my fingers danced with the magic of words, crafting stories that painted vivid landscapes in the minds of readers. Tinkering with sentences was an enchantment, but destiny had a different narrative in store. As I delved into the realm of how things work, a newfound passion bloomed. The artistry of language gave way to the artistry of design. Becoming an engineer was not merely a title—it was my evolution of identity. The shift was gradual, like the sunrise painting the sky with hues of possibility. I saw human-made objects not just as entities, but as extensions of creativity. As an engineer, I became a creator, shaping the contours of existence with precision and intention. The blank canvas was replaced with blueprints, and the words woven were of gears and mechanisms. With each design, I conceived a symphony of shapes and functions. The creative energy that once flowed through words now coursed through geometrical forms and structures. The power to transform abstract ideas into tangible realities became a source of exhilaration. Tinkering with things became a new art for me. I would spend hours absorbed in the rhythm of creation, sculpting metal, and materials into harmonious arrangements. This intersection of artistry and engineering sparked a fire that could not be contained.

Embracing the role of a design engineer, I embarked on a professional journey that mirrored a lifelong passion. Complex problems became puzzles to be solved, each solution crafted with precision and ingenuity. Spatial reasoning and artistic skills, once honed through words, now navigated through the intricacies of mechanical designs. The profession did more than fuel my creativity—it nurtured it. Engineering was not a departure from artistic inclinations; it was an embodiment of them. As an engineer, I was an artisan, using knowledge and skills to forge pathways between imagination and reality.

Symphony of Expertise: Flourishing in interdisciplinary harmony

In the bustling corridors of innovation, I found myself entwined in a symphony of diverse minds and expertise. My journey is one of transcending boundaries and discovering the immense creative power that emerges when different disciplines unite in harmonious collaboration. My career in industry and in academia is a tapestry woven with threads from across the world. While working in industry, on my interdisciplinary teams, I stood shoulder to shoulder with individuals who hailed from various cultures, fields, backgrounds, and educational paths. It was a canvas painted with myriad hues, each brushstroke adding depth to the masterpiece of collective brain.

In these settings, I witnessed the remarkable fusion of skills. My engineering colleagues were not just masters of equations and blueprints; they wielded a palette of “other” talents that embellished their technical prowess.

Every day was a revelation, a testament to the boundless potential that emerges when barriers crumble. I thrived in this chaos of creativity, where engineering solutions were crafted with the brushstrokes of artistic insight. But I knew that the journey was ongoing. Just as the symphony’s notes swirled and shifted, so did my growth. The interdisciplinary landscape was ever evolving, and every day was a new movement in the grand composition of my career.

A Symbiotic Symphony: Engineering, education, and the legacy of a father

In the tapestry of my life, threads of engineering and education were interwoven with vibrant hues of inspiration and legacy. My educational journey is a testament to the profound impact of a father’s influence, the synergy of disciplines, and the pursuit of passion. The year 2009 marked a pivotal juncture – my heart was weighed down by the loss of my father—a man who had shaped my world with his wisdom and guidance. He had kindled in me a love for both learning and creativity, having been a revered teacher and pottery artisan for nearly four decades. Guided by my father’s memory, my path unfolded in an unexpected direction. Purdue University’s Engineering Education PhD program beckoned a pathway that converged my adoration for engineering with my appreciation for education. A journey, not just of academia, but of honoring my father’s legacy. The marriage of engineering and education breathed life into my aspirations. Through my father’s teachings, I had glimpsed the intricate dance between the human mind and the creations it births. By the end of 2009, my trajectory shifted. Leaving my design engineer job, at the age of close to 40, I stepped into the School of Engineering Education. My decision was driven by a profound sense of creativity—a thirst for change that would tether me closer to my father’s essence. In this act of transformation, I found solace, believing that every lecture, every research endeavor, was a whisper of connection to my father’s legacy.

Becoming an educator and researcher was more than a profession; it was a spiritual journey. As I walked in the footsteps of my father, I drew inspiration from the lives he had touched. Like him, I yearn to make a difference in the lives of my students, molding their minds and igniting their passions. Being an engineering educator and researcher, my quest deepened. Through my studies, I sought to unravel the delicate interplay between human minds and objects crafted by human hands. My journey culminated in a beautiful paradox—a harmonious symphony of education and engineering, and an unwavering connection to my father’s spirit. With the legacy of his teachings, I guide my students towards self-discovery and expression just as my father did for generations.

Lessons learned

Reflecting upon my life’s chapters, hopefully becomes clear that my journey is far from a static pinnacle, rather, it is a voyage of perpetual exploration and an embrace of change. I hope my narrative highlights that the boundless realm of true creative potential thrives in environments that celebrate diversity and nurture interdisciplinarity.

Resilience, passion, and a steadfast refusal to be confined by stereotypes hold the key for me to transforming adversity into achievement. I hope my journey is a reminder that even when confronted with challenges, the flames of passion and creativity can persistently burn bright. And remember that your journey as international graduate students is unique, and you have the chance to create your own narrative filled with accomplishments, challenges overcome, and meaningful contributions.  Stay curious and adaptable, transcend borders, and immerse yourself in a global academic community. Here is some advice based on the lessons I have learned so far:

  • Embrace your curiosity and creativity: Just like my childhood fascination with objects and artistic expression, embrace your own curiosity and creative passions. Don’t be afraid to explore unconventional paths and integrate your interests into your academic pursuits.
  • Face adversity with determination: Turn challenges into steppingstones rather than roadblocks. Remember that determination, resilience, and a refusal to conform to stereotypes can help you overcome obstacles and excel in your field.
  • Find your unique intersection: Seek out the areas where your passions and academic discipline intersect. This convergence can lead to innovative solutions and opportunities that set you apart in your field.
  • Engage in interdisciplinary collaboration: Engage with colleagues from diverse backgrounds and fields to enrich your own perspective and discover new avenues for exploration.
  • Honoring legacy and values: Whether it’s cultural heritage, family traditions, or personal values, integrating these aspects into your academic pursuits can add depth and purpose to your work.
  • Adapt to cultural transitions: You may face cultural adjustments. Embrace these transitions as opportunities for personal growth, cross-cultural learning, and expanding your global perspective.
  • Make connections across borders: Create connections and build relationships with people from various backgrounds and cultures. Networking with fellow students, professors, and professionals can help you establish a global network that enriches your academic journey and future career.
  • Balance tradition and innovation: As you blend tradition and innovation, remember that both have value. Draw from your cultural heritage while also exploring new ideas and approaches, contributing to a diverse and dynamic academic environment.
  • Pursue lifelong learning: Growth is a continuous process. Embrace lifelong learning, explore new horizons, and stay open to evolving your interests and skills throughout your academic and professional career.
  • Leave your mark: Strive to make a positive impact on those around you. Share your knowledge, mentor others, and contribute to your field in meaningful ways.
  • Value diversity and inclusion: Embrace the power of diversity and inclusivity in your academic and personal interactions. Respect and learn from people of different backgrounds, and actively contribute to creating an inclusive and welcoming community.
  • Embrace change and uncertainty: Be open to change and uncertainty. These moments can lead to unexpected opportunities and personal growth that shape your academic and professional trajectory.

Final words

As I gaze upon the pottery wheel, the dusty textbooks, and the enigmatic antiques, I am reminded that the objects that once ignited my imagination still carry the magic that propels me forward. Today, I stand as a testament to the dynamic synergy of interdisciplinary fusion and the enduring impact of a father’s love. My journey underscores that our roots, when cherished, and our curiosities, when embraced, lead not only to personal growth but also to an imprint on the hearts and minds of those who follow our paths. May my experiences inspire you, spark your own journey to transcend borders and embrace the enriching tapestry of global academia. As you traverse new territories of learning, may you, too, draw your mark on the world with determination, passion, and boundless creativity.


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