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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“[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.
“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.
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.
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].”
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.”