Sitting in the back row of MIE100 Dynamics, a first-year engineering class, is like sitting in at the United Nations council. There’s a world of skin colours and facial features, highlighting the ethnic spectrum of engineering these days.

But unlike recent UN council gatherings, the rowdiness here is benign and there’s little tension in the air other than the nervousness of overly self-conscious first-year students. In fact, there’s a sense of clubhouse camaraderie, of banding together from running through the gauntlet.

Skule, as U of T’s faculty of applied science and engineering is more familarly cheered, is tough indeed—and prestigious. Many of its departments are ranked among the top ten in North America. MIE100 Dynamics is just the first step in the obstacle course of problems sets, labs and tests that students have to run through.

Which perhaps explains why the prof strides in like a football coach— “let’s get started”—and problem set numbers quickly go up on the board. Like a locker room pre-game briefing, everyone resigns themselves to the task at hand. In the first front rows, nearly flush with Chinese students, Mandarin and Cantonese quiets to a lulling hush.

But before the prof can step away from the blackboard, a student in the front row puts up his hand. In broken English he asks why the problem sets go up to 4.12 when last time it went up to 4.16. “Do you have a problem?” the prof replies, and half of the class gets the twist and laughs while the other half doesn’t.

Like any university experience, getting an education is more than simply problem sets. To a large extent, it’s figuring out who you are and who you want to become, grappling to achieve an identity of sorts.

Against the multiethnic background of engineering, identifying oneself according to ethnicity can be somewhat of a joke. But for others it’s less so, especially in the first year of seeing oneself in a much larger crowd. Below the nonchalant laughter and sense of fellowship there are lines being drawn, identities being crashed, and all sorts of questions of fitting-in sticking out.

“I think it’s because of all the immigrants,” explains first-year student Norman Burjic, when asked why engineering is so diverse. Around him and his lab partner, students languish over oscilloscopes and circuit boards as part of a first-year electronics lab.

“They’re attracted to engineering. I think in countries where many immigrants come from—and my parents are immigrants—engineering is seen as something prestigious, something respected. They want their kids to do well.”

No longer the domain of WASP professors with WASP students, engineering these days is a reflection of the ethnic shift in Toronto’s now-global character. Many students flaunt their immigrant roots, something taboo several generations ago. But unlike other departments, such as history, mathematics or even physics, the five departments of engineering are so distinctively and visibly non-WASP that it causes one to wonder why.

Wajic’s lab partner and the lab group next to them—all children of immigrant parents from around the world—float a lot of answers: money, prestige, clear-cut career path, and “it was the thing to get into in high school.” Parental pressure is acknowledged, too (three of them have a parent who is an engineer, one has a father who is a mechanic, and one has a father who is a political scientist).

At the end of the bench, Sam Boureslan adds that for the child of an immigrant there are really only three career options: business, medicine or engineering. “It’s either do those or drive a taxi,” he laughs, making fun of the stereotype of his Indian background. The others chuckle along with him.

Any tension or discomfort about everyone else’s background is dismissed. “It’s just how it is. I really don’t think of it too much,” says Boureslan.

For others, though, it’s not that easy. It has been said, as president Birgeneau contentiously noted, the ethnic diversity of U of T—and, yes, engineering—scares away potential first-year students, and not just WASPs.

“If students don’t want to come here because of our diversity, well, it’s their choice,” says William Cluett, vice-dean of the faculty and chair of first-year studies. He says that during high-school recruiting campaigns, no effort is made to parade or hide engineering’s true colours—what is, is.

He sees engineering being less visibly white not because of students being put off by the diversity, but simply through the socio-economic reasons driving Toronto’s demographics. “Many recently immigrated families want their children to do well and an engineering degree has an international reputation of having high job prospects.”

In fact, entire families of prospective students often come out to see the faculty’s recruitment campaign, from the youngest toddlers to the oldest aunts and grandfathers.

“We are—and I think the students, too—proud of what we’ve built here, in terms of community,” he says. No complaints by students about racism have been brought up as long as he can remember.

But there are problems, Clueet admits. Complaints about ethnic cliquishness have come up on several occasions, and faculty and staff have discussed the issue. They are monitoring the situation, he says.

Such complaints are often kept quiet so as to not rock the boat, not just by faculty but by students.

In the civil engineers club room, a haven for first-year students, five guys are playing foosball and hanging out. What do they think about the variety of faces in the hallways?

All make grudging, ambiguous gestures, tense-like. But one guy blurts it out—“There’s too many of them,” he says. He explains: the Chinese. Is it a problem getting along? All of them look a bit ashamed, looking elsewhere. “When they all speak Chinese it is,” he says.

There’s a cliquishness to some groups in engineering, he thinks, but especially Chinese. They just seem like they want to stick together all the time. It turns out, however, that everyone standing around comes from an Italian family, as a few apologetically admit, aware of the irony. “Yeah, but it’s a fluke,” says one guy, jerking the foosball rod in jest. A few uneasy chuckles are generated.

The increasing enrollment of Chinese students has been a trend in engineering for quite some time, says Bruce Francis, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering systems control. It’s understandable why there is a perception of cliquishness about such students.

A self-described WASP, Francis has been at the department for the past thirty years and was a student of the faculty in the sixties. Back then it was much more white. New ethnicities have been gaining ground steadily since then, though, Chinese students prominently among them.

Now his class is half Chinese, many of them recent immigrants. At first it was Chinese students from Hong Kong coming over, but now more are from the mainland.

Even though the faculty keeps no statistics on student ethnic background or origin, he explains this fact from his wife being Chinese. He proudly shows a picture of his daughter, a cute blond tween. “Does she look Chinese?” he asks. “You can see it in her eyes a bit.”

He’s reluctant to say whether the view of Chinese engineering students as being cliquish is correct. He points out that any time a background is flaunted, it can be perceived as exclusive, as when Pakistan won over India in a cricket match and a student came into class yelling in triumph with his face painted like one of the flags, brandishing a cricket bat.

But he thinks English fluency is the decisive factor. If one’s ability to communicate is a problem, it makes one shy and uncomfortable around others. Cliquishness and English fluency go hand-in-hand.

Although Francis says he has no problems communicating with his students who have broken English, lack of solid English skills are a sore spot in the faculty’s presentation of a harmonious community.

Out of the roughly 1000 students the faculty admitted last year, about 20 percent of them failed the mandatory written English proficiency assessment. Those who do must take classes to improve their writing skills, while the faculty relies upon infrequent, compulsory class presentations to improve oral fluency. But, as Francis says, “These students aren’t even self-conscious about being non-Anglophone—they flaunt it.”

Felix Wong, president of the Chinese Engineering Student Association (CESA), admits the cliquishness this causes—or at least the perception of it—is a sore spot for his organization, too, which organizes a number of events outside the traditional engineering society collective. Out of the more than 500 members, a large contingent is recent immigrants or VISA students.

“Language can be a problem…. It’s just that these students don’t feel comfortable going to mainstream events,” he says. “I think it’s a problem that we can address. It’s definitely something that needs to be discussed in the future.”

As for identity? “We’re still all engineers.”

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required