Debra George is a Michigan Engineering alumna. She graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1994. Now she works in Chad, Africa for Doctors Without Borders.
There are mornings when Debra George wakes up wondering if she’s going to have a problem with toads. Not a typical consideration for an engineer – or anyone in the U.S. But it’s a commonplace consideration during the rainy season in Africa, where George puts in long, sometimes nerve-racking days for Doctors Without Borders.
“What people might think is unusual is commonplace to me,” she said. “I’ve been to Sudan and now Chad with Doctors. It’s totally unlike Michigan – I see people travel by camel, not car. Women clear the land with sickles. The lack of technology is amazing. It’s hard to believe that people can survive here. It’s not an easy life.”
“There’s a lot of problem-solving and, at its core, that’s what engineering is about. So even here in Chad, my Michigan experience comes in handy.” -Debra George
As a Michigan Engineering student, she didn’t foresee a life where one pair of muddy boots would be her go-to footwear, and a couple of beat-up trucks on dirt roads would constitute traffic. And it never occurred to her that courses in math and systems would prepare her for logistics work in a country where bugs are a tourist attraction. Her outlook was pretty traditional.
She worked her way into advance manufacturing at Visteon. In her tenth year she found herself in an unchallenging job, making compromises and doing things she didn’t love. “I realized I had a lot of interests that I hadn’t pursued for 10 years. Teaching had always appealed to me and I happened to see an ad to teach English to Spanish-speaking kids and adults in Peru. I had taken Spanish in high school – I was fluent – so I decided to give it a go.”
The decision was a game-changer. “I found myself being paid to do work I loved in an interesting place, and I was helping people. I had no long-term objective but I was getting the idea of what I might possibly pursue.”
She volunteered to set up computing centers in Sri Lanka after the 2005 Tsunami, came back to the States to teach math in the Bronx, then signed on with Doctors Without Borders. She did her first stretch in the Sudan and then two tours in Chad. She’s back in in the States, taking a break and planning a fourth assignment for Doctors in Chad.
“The main emphasis there is pediatrics and malnutrition, which is very severe. Malaria’s constant. Tuberculosis and HIV are rampant. There are frequent breakouts of cholera and meningitis. And you can count on emergencies. It’s something like being in a MASH unit. The people are smart, cross-cultural expats, which usually means they’re interesting. A personal life is limited. We live in the same compound. The people you meet that first day are the people you’re stuck with. So you’d better like each other, or try. There’s not much to do. And there are a lot of security rules that keep you from going anywhere else – even if there was someplace to go.”
George is a logistician responsible for supply systems, which are surprisingly complex due to the large medical staff, an ever-changing inventory, international suppliers, seasonal demands and the uncertainty of delivery – it’s not easy to get supplies into Chad. They usually get a monthly truck from the capitol and a plane twice a week. There’s an influx of refugees from neighboring countries, and day-to-day politics that require constant negotiating.
“There’s a lot of problem-solving and, at its core, that’s what engineering is about,” George said. “So even here in Chad, my Michigan experience comes in handy.”
Those Ann Arbor years are a fond memory. “I lived with a bunch of girls. We liked the Brown Jug and Good Time Charley’s. We took road trips. We helped each other through hard times. I’ll never forget those years. In a way, Chad is a lot like Michigan Engineering. It’s a constant challenge. I’m away from home but I don’t feel like I’m missing out. I’ll never forget this. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”