Patrick Thelen: Building hope for Syrian refugees
By Caroline Osterman
B efore he was an engineer, Patrick Thelen grew up building LEGO Technics with his dad in Germany. “I was always curious to take things apart and see how they work,” he recalls. This early influence is what led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Engineering Management, which for Patrick defined the intersection between understanding how objects and organizations work, and why people do things the way that they do them.
Several years later Patrick was looking for a graduate-level curriculum that would echo this junction of business and engineering. “The Berkeley MEng was one of the few programs that offered this intersection,” he says. He also wanted access to more specific applications: the Industrial Engineering & Operations Research (IEOR) department allowed him to tap into a more data-focused and industrial side of engineering. Not to mention, “Berkeley is one of the best schools in the world — that made it quite easy to choose.”
“The Berkeley MEng was one of the few programs that offered this intersection between business and engineering.”
Outside of the classroom, Patrick was heavily involved at Berkeley. He took several courses and lecture series with the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (SCET), and won a MedTech Innovator competition with a fellow peer from the MEng program. He also lived in International House, where he met friends from all around the world, and played on a basketball team with some fellow members of his MEng cohort. “That is what was so striking about the MEng program: the quality of people, and how diverse the backgrounds were,” Patrick expressed — that, as well as the chance to individualize his curriculum and explore different avenues like entrepreneurship while earning his degree.
Right before graduation in 2017, Patrick received an offer from global management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG). He’s worked out of their Hamburg, Germany office for the past year and a half on consulting projects in countries all over the world, such as Canada and Indonesia. “Things I learned in the MEng program — particularly presenting, pitching, and constructing storylines — has helped so much in my daily work,” Patrick asserts. “It is such a practical program; it has made a huge difference.”
“Things I learned in the MEng program — particularly presenting, pitching, and constructing storylines — has helped so much in my daily work.”
World travel hasn’t been the only perk to his consulting gig. Another benefit Patrick has received with working at Boston Consulting Group is their unpaid leave program— which is what he’s been using to kickstart his NGO.
While he was living at the International House in Berkeley, Patrick took part in the 2017 Davis Projects for Peace competition. He, along with MEng peer Vanessa Chehlawi, were tasked to design a grassroots project that, if selected for funding, would be implemented over the following summer. At the time, Patrick was hearing frequently about the refugee crisis in his home country of Germany due to the Syrian civil war. He not only wanted to see what the action looked like at the source — he wanted to know what he could do to help. The duo decided to base their project in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, a neighboring country of Syria which has seen an especially large influx of refugees. In Bekaa Valley many of the refugee camps are severely lacking in adequate shelter and protection against the elements. Most of their inhabitants live in poverty, with little to no access to appliances or recreational items.
The team’s resolution was to provide these refugees with a “makerspace.” In this space, people in refugee camps could learn how to use tools—from sewing machines to power saws — in order to build the things that they most need, like furniture, clothing, and toys for children. “Having escaped war and traumatizing situations, [these Syrian refugees] share a tremendous motivation to build a new home and peaceful community,” reads the Building Hope project proposal. “Building such items will not only bring immediate relief to refugees, but also result in the positive feeling of being able to personally influence one’s current situation.”
“We believe this [makerspace] will allow them to immediately improve their living conditions, build strong communities, and hence, lower the potential for conflict and social instability.”
Patrick spent several weeks in Lebanon in the summer of 2017 to launch the pilot project and bring the makerspace to life. Partnering with another active NGO in Lebanon, the project was continued for one year, and its success in the refugee camps in Bekaa Valley was monitored throughout.
Patrick has now been utilizing his unpaid leave with BCG to work full-time on extending the project. Since late 2018 he has been fundraising and assembling a team of volunteers, and his NGO doin’ good was formally incorporated in Germany this February.
So what are the next steps for “doin’ good?” Starting this June, the team plans to begin scaling the makerspace project in Lebanon as well as instituting new education programs for underserved communities — all to help Syrian refugees acquire hands-on skills and make a positive change in their lives. Today the team is comprised of 10 volunteers, several of which are also Berkeley MEng alumni. The NGO recently won first place in Workforce Education & Development category of the Big Ideas 2019 competition as well.
Looking back on his two-year journey creating doin’ good, Patrick accredits much of his success to the people he lived and worked with at UC Berkeley. He leaves these words of advice for future MEng students:
“When you work on a project like this, you realize how important it is to have great people around you that are driven and want to make a change in the world. In Berkeley, especially the MEng program, you are surrounded by so many amazing people that come from all walks of life. Take time to immerse yourself in that. Take advantage of being surrounded by so many amazing people — and then stay in touch with these people. It’s incredibly valuable.”