Viterbi launches refugee virtual exchange program

Ashwin Bhumbla already knows that he wants to change the world.

Viterbi students participated in a Skype conference call Friday where they were able to speak to eight refugees from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Lebanon and Syria now living in Europe. Natalie Bettendorf | Daily Trojan

In his engineering diplomacy class last semester, which was taught by USC Viterbi School of Engineering professor Najmedin Meshkati last semester, Bhumbla said that one particular idea stuck with him: the idea of being a global engineer rather than a cubicle engineer.

“Of course, working at Google and Apple … It’s a dream,” said Bhumbla, a freshman majoring in industrial and systems engineering. “You’re pushing your technology, you’re making it, but then you start thinking, what’s it all for and who is it all for? … What’s the point if not everybody can have access to the old technology, the old improvements?”

Being in Meshkati’s class and getting involved in USC’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders encouraged Bhumbla to attend an event hosted by Viterbi in Ronald Tutor Hall Friday morning. At the event, Meshkati and Daniel Druhora, a senior digital content producer at the Viterbi Communications and Marketing group, hosted a Skype conference with eight refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Lebanon who are all currently living in various countries in Europe.

A dozen people were in attendance, including students, faculty and alumni. The conference call lasted about two hours, with refugees recounting their experiences in camps and answering questions from USC participants about what kinds of innovations would help increase the safety and effectiveness of these camps.

“The purpose of this conference call is to start dialogue between USC students, faculty and potential refugees,” Meshkati said in the email invitation for the event. “This would provide a great opportunity for us to learn more about (educated) young refugee circumstances who are either sitting ‘idle’ in refugee camps or in ‘limbo’ waiting for to be processed and how we can better frame this program for both USC and refugee students.”

Druhora explained that this conference was an important step for designing a class that could be launched as early as Fall 2018. The class will have 12 USC students and 12 refugee students working together to solve a problem involved in the refugee crisis with an engineering focus.

“They can split up into teams, they can identify the problem and then start to work on researching, interviewing, doing the whole process,” Druhora said. “That would be the first semester. The second semester, they would start to work on the problem, they start the prototype, they start to design things … Then it would all culminate in a meeting. So like you saw today, they’re meeting them virtually. [But] at the end of the program, they would meet them in-person.”

Kayla Soren, a sophomore majoring in international relations and environmental studies, also called in for the Skype conference. Even though she is currently in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences program in Washington, D.C., she has been working with Meshkati and Druhora to launch a refugee virtual exchange project at USC. She has been helping them develop a student-driven, research-based curriculum that would encourage students to not only think about global issues, but also become active in creating necessary change.

“I just felt this intense passion and I will do anything it takes to make this a success,” Soren said. “It really frustrates me, especially seeing today, like doesn’t something like this already exist? Why aren’t universities doing anything?”
After the event, Bhumbla said that he was particularly struck when one refugee said that no one chooses to be a refugee.

“When you start thinking about ‘Why am I at this school? What am I learning engineering for?’ the answer, I think, no matter what you’re learning, is to help people,” Bhumbla said.