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Dilani Selvanathan

Dilani is a final-year Apprentice Software Engineer who combines working for the BBC with studying at Queen Mary University of London for a bachelor’s degree in Digital and Technology Solutions. 

“In 2017, at the start of my apprenticeship I was awarded the IET Horizons Bursary (now IET Future Talent Awards), which can help with personal costs,” she said. “When I opened the box and read the letter congratulating me as a winner, I was in shock. I thought: ‘No way!’

“This is when my relationship with the IET began. It gave me the opportunity to access IET resources and activities. I became a STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] Ambassador and started volunteering, networking and attending IET events. Getting involved in all these activities helped me to gain a lot of experience and build up my connections.

“It’s so important to promote STEM, especially to young people because they don’t know about all the amazing career opportunities that are out there. I feel like all the STEM workers have a duty to inspire the next generation because what students learn about in school are generic job roles, whereas people like me know their own role inside out and can share their stories and experiences, to enlighten and encourage young people to consider a career in STEM.

“I am very passionate about sharing my story because I know what a massive impact this type of interaction can have on a young person. Back in 2016 I attended a Girls’ Insight course at the BBC and listened to female software engineers talking about their roles, as well as a female apprentice. It was a fascinating and inspiring day that led to me deciding to do a software engineering apprenticeship at the BBC!”

Phenomenal commitment 

During the past three years, Dilani has taken on a huge number of volunteer roles and responsibilities, many of which she didn’t expect would be open to her at such a young age.  

“In 2018 I was featured on iet.tv, promoting the Horizons Bursary at the BBC. The footage was shared on social media and at the IET Annual Dinner,” she said. “The following year I joined the IET Scholarship and Bursary Council and took on an events role. I became a WISE (Women In Science and Engineering) Role Model too, which led to me giving a presentation to a girls’ school about my experience and helping to run a careers-focused ‘speed dating’ session that helped the girls identify potential career paths.” 

Dilani supported the Faraday Challenge in 2018 and 2019, and judged four competitions (three regional and a national) in the IET FIRST® LEGO® League in 2019 and in 2020: “I found the young competitors’ passion for robotics very intriguing,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoyed judging their impressive creations and was able to develop my skills, including interviewing and observing the teams.

“When I was their age I didn’t know anything about robotics or robotic components, so it was amazing to see their interest in STEM and to hear them speak about their project. As a software engineer, I was able to give feedback relating to my role.

“I was also a Robotics Design judge at the national Big Bang Digital Competition. It was an incredible opportunity and a great honour – I do a lot of programming, but I am still an apprentice and fully expected a more senior, experienced engineer to be selected.”

Developing a broad skillset

Volunteering has enabled Dilani to acquire many new skills and hone existing ones. Time management skills are essential, given the need for her to combine her numerous volunteer commitments with the demands of her apprenticeship.

Dilani’s communication and listening skills came to the fore when, as a STEM Ambassador, she set students an exciting challenge that required them to develop precise definitions and give clear instructions – the very essence of software engineering. “I pretended to be an alien from Area 51 who wanted to learn how to make a peanut and jelly sandwich,” she said.

“It was all done remotely. I had two cameras positioned above and in front of me so that the students could watch as I did exactly what they told me to do. At first, they found it difficult, but they soon got the hang of it. It was a very creative exercise that was also great fun!”

Dilani’s involvement in robotics competitions for young people has been particularly beneficial in terms of developing her skill set. “I had high-visibility roles with a significant level of responsibility,” she said.

“I really appreciated the chance to influence the quality of the event in a positive way and to interact and collaborate with the various teams. I also developed strong assessment, interpersonal and communication skills. I felt proud to be a role model.”

Dilani doesn’t shy away from taking on new and challenging responsibilities. She stepped in at short notice to deliver a speech to the 2018 Horizons Bursary winners; was a STEM volunteer speaker at the 2019 Big Bang Fair; and spoke about STEM and her career to 1,900 young people attending the Big Assembly 2019, which was broadcast to a further 20,000 online viewers.  

She is also an IET Young Professional Ambassador, which means she is connected to a global network of other IET volunteers between the ages of 18 and 35. In this role, she contributes to events led by the London Young Professionals Network Committee; provides an apprentice perspective to discussions and research opportunities, and helps build a community for Young Professionals in London.

Outstanding achievement

Dilani was “surprised, overwhelmed and very proud” to have won the 2020 IET Paul Fletcher Award, which is given to young professional volunteers for outstanding achievement in contributing to the activities of the IET.

“I honestly didn’t expect to win,” she said. “The other finalists were all far more experienced than me and have achieved greater things as they have progressed in their career. I’m very grateful to have been singled out for an award at such an early stage in my career.

“This award shows that I am making a difference – and an impact on young people’s lives. It gives me the opportunity to excel, continue volunteering on a larger scale and network more with other STEM professionals. It will also help me progress in my career.”

 

If you’d like to explore how you can engage with IET volunteering, please contact volunteer@theiet.org