Cultural Vistas Blog

Kuwaiti Women in STEM Complete Internships in the Windy City

Global perspective is part of the fabric of engineering and architecture design consulting firm EXP. The company has over 110 office locations across the U.S. and Canada employing people from all around the world. In addition to their penchant for hiring top global talent, EXP helps grow the careers of those just starting out in the field in its role as a host company of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program.

Since 2011, EXP has had a special relationship with the next generation of professionals from Kuwait as a host for the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, which leads a professional development program for recent Kuwaiti graduates. Every year, 10 or more interns come to EXP’s Chicago headquarters through Cultural Vistas’ J-1 Visa sponsorship.

The five young Kuwaiti women pose together at the EXP offices in Chicago in front of a table with an architectural model.
(From left to right) Sarah Johar, Sarah Ali, Zeenab Adnan Al-Saleh, Lulwah Alzamel and Anwar Alsharhan completed J-1 Visa internships at EXP after studying architecture and engineering in Kuwait.

“Our partnership with a company such as EXP is considered a pioneer in the field of engineering,” said Basel Abdulrahim from the Kuwait Fund. “EXP has provided great training experiences to our fresh graduate engineer and architects placing them in projects and giving them direct training to their field.”

This winter, EXP is hosting five Kuwaiti women at their headquarters—friends who knew each other during their undergraduate studies and wound up in Chicago together by coincidence. The Kuwait Fund program has a balanced gender ratio with a number of female architects and engineers in the country.

A see-through glass door with an emblazoned EXP logo in focus and a seating and bar area visible on the other side.
EXP’s many large-scale architecture and engineering projects make it an ideal host company for the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.

For all five women, interning at EXP is their first professional experience. And while it has been challenging to adapt to an American work environment, the interns all say that their time at EXP will be invaluable when they return to Kuwait as newly minted architects and engineers.

Scaling Up

Intern Anwar Alsharhan says that the architecture field in Kuwait is very different than in the U.S. In her home country, projects tend to be residential and smaller scale. EXP, on the other hand, works with the government and private companies on larger projects.

One seated intern and another standing intern look at a computer monitor displaying an architectural model.
Lula and Anwar work together on a project at EXP.

Anwar, along with Sarah Johar and Zeenab Adnan Al-Saleh, have been placed in EXP’s architecture department and have worked on everything from transportation projects to designs on behalf of the U.S. Postal Service.

“Big projects in Kuwait are [often] done by foreign companies,” said Sarah Johar. “So [at EXP] I get the chance to experience different scale projects.”

Many of EXP’s large-scale projects are located across the city of Chicago, which means that the Kuwaiti interns can frequently go see the fruits of their labor. For example, Anwar worked on a redesign of Chicago’s 95th/Dan Ryan “L” train stop.

“I was able to go visit the site last week,” said Anwar. “It was a lot of fun and interesting to see how it’s coming together.”

For Sarah Johar, one of the best parts of interning at EXP is being able to apply her interest in adaptive redesign—repurposing old buildings without changing the facade. Many architecture projects at EXP require adaptive redesign because of the age of many of Chicago’s old buildings.

Kuwaiti intern Sarah Johar works at her desk with two monitors and three paper printouts in front of her.
Sarah Johar likes working on large scale projects at EXP.

“[In Chicago] you have buildings from the ‘20s or ‘30s still standing,” she said. “Our oldest building is about 50 years because we don’t do maintenance very well.”

Real World Skills

As with many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates with considerable theoretical knowledge but not much practical experience, the Kuwaiti interns said that working on-the-ground in architecture and engineering is very important to their future careers.

“I didn’t see the practical side of my major until coming here,” said electrical engineer Sarah Ali. She has been working on a project for AT&T and has done multiple site visits.

Five Kuwaiti interns smile at the camera at the EXP offices in Chicago.
The five interns will remain at EXP until March, when they’ll return to Kuwait for the last part of the Kuwait Fund program.

“It’s so different from college,” said Anwar. “When I came here, I started working on projects that were being built. I’ve learned a lot more about how the real world works when it comes to construction and design.”

Some of the most important skills that the women are picking up is practical application of architecture and engineering computer programs. The interns were required to take a course in Revit at the beginning of their time at EXP. Lulu has since used the program to model buildings and test their weight-holding capabilities.

For Sarah Johar, having to speak English on a daily basis is very important for her future career. She’s working on coming out of her shell to practice speaking the language more often while in the United States.

Kuwaiti intern Zeenab and her mentor smile while they both look at what is displayed on Zeenab's dual monitors.
Zeenab seeks advice from her mentor on a project. All of the interns are placed with mentors to help them ease into the workplace.

Zeenab says that her STEM internship at EXP is the first step towards her dream of opening her own office one day. She plans on getting her MBA and starting a company that designs events once she returns to Kuwait.

The Windy City

Cold Chicago isn’t the first-choice winter destination for most people from hot, desert climates like the Middle East. But for these five STEM interns, living in the architecture hub of the United States has been one of the highlights of their overseas experience.

To cope with the new, and much colder, climate, the interns opted for an easy commute. They live right across the street from EXP’s Chicago office.

“We’re desert girls, so we can’t deal with the cold,” said Lulu.

Four Kuwaiti interns wearing Chicago Cubs gear smile at the camera on the ground level of Wrigley Field.
Some of the Kuwaiti interns enjoy their first Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

In their spare time, the women have explored the city’s many parks, museums, and cultural attractions. A coworker even invited them to attend a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Chicago.

“All the styles, the art deco, the classic, we don’t have that in Kuwait,” said Sarah Johar. “We only study it in art history. But I got the chance to see it [in person].”

Four Kuwaiti interns pose smiling at the camera at a viewing deck of a tall building with the Chicago skyline visible through the window behind them.
Experiencing Chicago’s architecture scene is one of the highlights of the internship experience.

For the interns, living in Chicago is their first experience with living on their own. Sarah Johar’s parents encouraged her to go abroad to gain this independence, while Lulu’s mother was more hesitant. But Lulu herself didn’t feel nervous at all about living in the United States. She knew that her religion and headscarf would not be an issue, having had previously visited the U.S. several times prior to her internship.

“I love everything about this country and I’m absolutely having a great time in Chicago. In all my visits, the people have been friendly and nice and I’ve never been in a situation where I was discriminated.”

Reflecting On My First Year at Cultural Vistas

This November marked my one-year anniversary as CEO at Cultural Vistas. As I reflect on my first year, I’m overcome with pride for this organization and the meaningful work we do. In my first full year, the organization celebrated many firsts of its own.

Leading an organization full of talented and motivated individuals is not a responsibility I take lightly.

In reflecting on 2018, what I am most proud of is the professional and personal growth I have witnessed in Cultural Vistas staff, our exchange participants, and alumni. That, in my mind, is the most important indicator of success.

Below I am thrilled to share a few of the highlights, achievements, and steps we’ve taken toward fulfilling our mission in 2018.

Cultural Vistas Awards Gala celebrating IAESTE
Slovakian intern and IAESTE participant Lubica Komarova, Jennifer (center), and IAESTE President Bernard Baeyens celebrated the 70th anniversary of the longstanding STEM-focused reciprocal exchange program at the inaugural Cultural Vistas Awards Gala in September 2018.

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Year in Germany Helps Bosch Alumna Become Successful Artist

Sheryl Oring’s installation art piece “Writer’s Block” had been in storage for over a decade when a professor from University of Virginia called her to ask to show it on campus. Created while Sheryl was living in Germany, the piece features 600 antique typewriters in cages of old rebar. It is a commentary on Nazi censorship that has become socially relevant again in recent years.

The piece was displayed on campus just a few months after the events surrounding the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville which resulted in the death of a young woman.

“Writer’s Block” was shown at the Ruffin Gallery at the University of Virginia in January 2018.

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Bellydancing through Reverse Culture Shock

Dr. Glaucia Karime Braga participated in the Visiting Scientist Program with The United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP) through J-1 Trainee sponsorship from Cultural Vistas in 2012—an experience that has been paying dividends in her career and personal development ever since.

Though nothing about her background as an expert in pharmaceutical sciences prior to the program would suggest that Dr. Braga has ever been anything less than motivated, she is very appreciative of how significant of a milestone her exchange program was in her life.

These aren’t the only reasons we’re big fans.

You might be surprised to learn that this pose and outfit are not typical of someone with a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences.

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Retracing Family History in Germany

When judging the over 1,000 submissions to our photo contest each year, we’re not only impressed by the quality of your travel photography. We’re also blown away by the stories you tell us about your time abroad. From that treacherous hike that changed your life, to the host family that made you feel at home in a foreign place, travel stories have a life well beyond your time overseas. That’s why this year, we awarded our favorite story a top prize in our photo contest.

Our inaugural travel story winner is Brandt Coleman, a Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals alumnus who has a unique reason why he was interested in spending a year in Germany.

When he was a kid, Brandt would read letters to his grandmother that his grandfather wrote her from Germany during World War II. This experience had a profound impact on Brandt’s life.

Brandt Coleman’s grandfather poses in front of a book printer in Germany during World War II.

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