By ALPHONSE BARIASI
WHILE in primary school, Denise Yakipu had fixed her sights on a career in engineering. Not just any field but in petroleum to be precise.
She was born only a few years after PNG’s first crude oil was exported. And she grew up in a time when the industry was breaking into more exciting new ground; new oil fields were discovered, tanker loads of PNG crude were shipped offshore, and the demand for highly skilled technical people grew steadily.
Seeing herself in denims, steel-capped boots and hard hat and working on an oil field must have been no small motivation then. Why not? She was young, energetic and most importantly, had the head to match upon her shoulders for that kind of job!
The first born daughter of a primary school teacher, Denise had the best opportunities available in the public education system because wherever mum was posted to, she and her five younger siblings were assured spaces in classes.
Mum Nancy was for a long time head of Ekivaki Primary School in Hohola, NCD so Denise did all her primary education there and easily transitioned to Gordon Secondary School. She did very well in the Grade 12 national examination but that was still not good enough for a space on the engineering promgramme at the PNG University of Technology in Lae so she had to settle for a second, less appealing option. That was the Science foundation year at the University of PNG for possible streaming into geology.
However, her yearning for a degree in engineering and a sense of disappointment were a huge distraction and she missed a whole chunk of lecture time at UPNG.
“I was disappointed because I could not make the engineering course at Unitech. I missed many classes at UPNG during that foundation year,” she recalls.
She did get by in that first year at UPNG. One day she was on her way to the faculty’s admin office to collect a transcript of studies and chanced upon a lecturer who had done an engineering course in a Chinese university who told her of the possibility of studying her subject of choice there, if she wanted to.
She was instantly interested and the arrangements began promptly after. While the student was all enthusiasm, the parents, her to-be main sponsors, had some reservations and questions about the whole arrangement.
The news of her acceptance to study at a foreign university was such a big deal to be kept within the family. Her dad, Nelson called home to break the exciting news. In fact the whole village of Lamberi in Pangia, Southern Highlands was excited and began to chip in whatever little cash they had to fund Denise’s degree course.
As things eventually worked out, before long, in March of 2015, Denise was on a flight out of Port Moresby, to the China University of Petroleum at Quingdao in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong.
Settling in turned out to be a little less-than-settling because what her parents had managed to pay was only for tuition with nothing wAS left for boarding. It was also her first time to travel abroad and getting around without a word of Mandarin was proving to be a challenge so for the first two months on campus, she had not ventureD out of her dormitory.
The study schedule was quite rigid and classes even went on till 10pm on some days.
But from there on, and for the remainder of the course duration when Denise’s enthusiasm wavered at times, it was her ‘super-spiritual’ mum’s faith that took over, she recalls now with a wide grin.
Denise settled into the course of studies, and over the next four years, became a leader and role model for the growing number of PNG students who had joined her in Quindao.
She had also taught English part-time at a pre-school to earn money for her upkeep.
All in all, it was a tough, challenging four years at the China University of Petroleum but those hardships were all worth it as she was finally handed the degree of her childhood dreams in January 2019.
Denise is currently working with ExxonMobil as a project engineer mostly in what are known in the oil and gas industry as brownfields – where it is basically keeping an eye on facilities set in place to process and deliver hydro carbons (gas condensate in this instance). Although not quite what she would want to be involved in, which is the greenfield or actual oil and gas fields, she still enjoys her daily job.
“It’s not exactly what I learned in university but it is new and exciting as you get to learn a bit of everything in electrical and civil engineering,” Denise says.
Working in a team of mostly men, she is mindful of the gender biases that are expected in such settings. However, her female boss lends her all the support and encouragement she needs to go the extra mile when on the odd day the going must get somewhat tough at the workplace.
The future for her has to be on an oil field somewhere and actually getting involved with drilling for oil or gas.
For now, she is holding her head down and giving her best engineering knowledge and skills to ensuring that together with her team, they keep the gas flowing.
Prospects for marriage and settling down to raising a family are still way out of the horizon for now.She keeps reminding herself that not only a family but a tribe has invested in or look up to her. She is the first of their daughters to have acquired a petroleum engineering degree. Besides, her own siblings still in school would also be looking up to her not only as a role model but a benefactor as well.
She admits that the expectations of her family and tribe might be somewhat heavy on her shoulders but the love and affinity are an inspiration and motivation as well.
From here on the dream of a job in an oil field anywhere in the world is only a career swithch away.
By ALPHONSE BARIASI