Raha Hakimdavar, an award-winning engineer and hydrologist, knew what it meant to live in a different country long before her Fulbright to the Netherlands. Originally from Isfahan, Iran, she moved to the United States when she was ten years old. Though she could not speak English, she jumped right into a California middle school, and graduated from her ESL classes within just a few months. Her determination came from experience, as this wasn’t Raha’s first stint abroad: her family traveled previously due to her father’s work, which even brought her to attending kindergarten in northern Italy. Even so, the transition to the United States was a transformational endeavor.
“When we moved to the United States, I was old enough to understand what it meant, and had a hard time because of that,” says Raha. “You know you’re a person with a personality, you know you’re something – but in this new world, you’re not. No one sees you as that person, and you’ll probably never be that person again. The experience taught me to be comfortable in new situations, even where no one understands me.”
An emboldened Raha carried this philosophy with her across the country, from her Civil Engineering undergraduate degree at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona to Columbia University in New York, where she began pursuing graduate work in engineering and hydrology in 2010. Her undergraduate engineering program had few opportunities for study abroad, and beyond a short research seminar in the United Kingdom, Raha assumed opportunities for international studies were reserved for other academic fields. It was a welcome surprise when she found out about the NAF-Fulbright Fellowship Program in Water Management – a perfect fit for her professional and academic trajectory. She received the Fulbright grant, and embarked to Delft, a town outside of Amsterdam, in 2013.
Through her Fulbright Program, Raha was able to study engineering from the perspective of working with the forces of nature, instead of against them to address water related challenges such as flooding. She had previously done work as a structural design engineer, but water management proved a fascinating shift of expertise. She studied the effects of deforestation, reforestation, and other land changes on water and climate in the Caribbean and in urban areas, utilizing the Netherlands’ advanced models and statistical methodologies for detecting hydrological change. Her research goal was to discover to what extent natural infrastructure can be useful in managing water from the scale of a city all the way up to a watershed. Though the data availability limitations in her study sites proved a challenge, scientists in Delft have developed ways of collecting and analyzing hydrology and climate data in data limited regions, such as the Caribbean.
“I was so focused on my PhD at the time, but it took me by surprise just how much I love the Netherlands. The Dutch people are positive and practical. When there’s a problem, they say ‘Let’s solve it!'” Raha recalls fondly. “That sums up their water management culture, too. In 1953, there was a major flood that killed many people and destroyed parts of the country’s infrastructure. It shocked the world, because it was a humanitarian crisis in a highly developed country, and no one had anticipated that. The Dutch looked at this and said ‘Never again. We are going to address this,’ and developed more advanced flood management systems as a result.”
Was it just as hard moving to the Netherlands as it was moving to the United States as a child? Not a chance, chuckles Raha. “You just need three things: an apartment, a bank account, and a bicycle!” But she was grateful for the Fulbright office’s help with all the logistics of moving, and for the friends she made within Delft’s intercultural student community. She was even able to learn some Dutch (though her English-fluent peers didn’t offer her much opportunity to test her linguistic ability.)
Though she returned to the United States to complete her PhD, Raha received another great honor from the Netherlands at the end of 2018 when she was tapped to receive the KLM Sustainability and Innovation Award. The Netherland-America Foundation, which partially funded her Fulbright, is a non-political bilateral organization promoting culture and collaboration. Every year, NAF holds a large annual fundraising event where they present this prestigious award, sponsored by the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to recognize contributions to the fields of sustainability. Raha was recognized for her work in hydro-ecology and ecological engineering.
Raha was invited to the Peter Stuyvesant Ball, a grand ceremony at the Plaza hotel in New York, where she gave her acceptance speech partially in Dutch to an audience that included both the CEO of KLM and even Princess Margriet of the Netherlands – who personally asked her about her work in Haiti. Raha recalls with a laugh that she had no idea whether to shake the princess’s hand or bow. “I never anticipated all of these opportunities and the recognition, feeling like I’m part of the Dutch community. I never expected this to come from my Fulbright or be part of my life.”
These days, Raha is a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service. The interdisciplinary nature of forest management means Raha is not only thinking about engineering, but ecology and biodiversity as well. She uses satellite data to study water, and through her work, has the opportunity to help set the national direction in water and land management decisions and policies. Her work extends to the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals by addressing data gaps and strengthening worldwide knowledge of global water security. She has been a Presidential Management Fellow with USDA and NASA, and a consultant with UN Environment and the World Bank in the Caribbean. She still works closely with the other Fulbright fellows that pursued research in water management, including on organizing an upcoming symposium.
“The NAF-Fulbright in Water Management was a pivotal point in my life and career and has been a big factor in helping me get to where I am today,” says Raha. “I never thought I’d be the kind of person to get a Fulbright. Someone read into my project idea and thought, ‘We think we should give this person a chance.’ It gave me a lot of confidence. It made me believe in myself.”