Engineered Confidence with EWB


Coming to U of T, I wanted to make a difference and joined Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a well-known non-governmental organization that tackles poverty in Africa. After all, it sounds like Doctors Without Borders[1]. Over the year, I met many admirable leaders through the network. I learned how to think and to think about ‘the how’. It wasn’t until March, after all these bliss moments, that I realized I was not satisfied.

I felt that EWB’s brand promised me a chance to make a visible impact, to get my hands dirty and see the positive changes ripple into the real world. In contrast, for the past 3+ years, the chapter focused on outreach, awareness, and fundraising. Immediately, I thought of changing this. But I’m a 1st year; I still have trouble finding the Haultain building. I did not have the bravery to question the organization. I kept quiet.

A few days later, my friend quit EWB; she was not making the impact she expected. Through a short discussion, we realized that we shared sentiments. With her support, I became motivated and reached out to others.

As we chatted with past and current members, these feelings showed up again and again. We soon concluded that the sentiment was the root cause of the chapter’s member retention disease. Even as our goals became more ambitious, our confidence continued to grow, knowing that others felt the same need for change.

Some were not supportive. They pointed out that the impact we sought was not practical. For example, we couldn’t all go to Africa. In response, we ‘re-scoped’ the desired impact to be local. We would train members with transferable skills, empowering them to later enact change in Africa. Other critiques were not so easily solved. But in the least, these allowed us to be more aware of our limitations.

By working with others, our once distant ideas evolved into a tangible solution. As we built our ideas, we built our confidence. Today, we narrowed down a list of 49 local not-for-profits to four ongoing discussions with community organizations involved with sustainable urban planning, equitable housing and prosperity.

Real confidence doesn’t come purely from yourself. By collaborating with others, you gain their perspectives and create lasting confidence. Real confidence is not a look, but comes from hard work and practice. The successes and failures endured let you better understand your strengths, and improve on your weakness.

Every time you pitch your start-up idea to professors or you practice asking a girl out with friends and they burst out laughing, keep your chin up. Because with each iteration of your design, you have one more reason to be a bit more confident than before.

Stephen Xu is a first-year Engineering Science student. He is the Vice-President at the U of T EWB Chapter as the Global Engineering Portfolio lead. Comments? Questions? Email Stephen at

[1] The two NGOs are actually very different.