Gina Parvaneh Cody came to Montreal from Iran in 1979 with $2,000 in her pocket and dreams of becoming an engineer.
After an hour-long interview with her brother’s engineering professor at Concordia University, Cody was given a scholarship to help cover the cost of her master’s degree.
Ten years later, she became the first woman in Concordia University’s history to earn a Ph.D in building engineering.
After a highly successful career as an engineer and business leader in Canada, Cody announced on Monday that she is giving a $15-million gift to her alma mater.
“Concordia welcomed me and provided me with support that changed my life,” she said. “My gift to the university is for the next generation, so that more people can succeed like I did.”
In recognition of her generous donation, Concordia has named its faculty of engineering and computer science after Cody — the first engineering faculty in Canada to be named after a woman.
Cody, 61, said she developed a love of building and engineering as a child growing up in Iran.
“I used to fix everything — if the chair was broken, I would fix it or change the bulbs in the television,” she told the Montreal Gazette in an interview.
Her father, who owned a private boys’ high school in Iran, had the 17-year-old Cody teach math and science to students during the summer.
Cody said she believes that higher education is the best way for women and minorities to succeed and she hopes her donation will encourage them to study engineering.
Her mother always told her that the best way for a woman to become independent was to achieve higher education, she said.
She attributes her success as an engineer and businesswoman to hard work, perseverance and confidence.
The $15-million donation will fund graduate and undergraduate scholarships, as well as research on smart cities. It will also allow the university to create three new chairs — in data analytics and artificial intelligence; the internet of things; Industry 4.0 and advanced manufacturing.
A portion of the gift, which Concordia will match, will go toward a special fund for equity, diversity and inclusion programming.
At present, only 20 per cent of university engineering students are women and only 12.8 per cent of working engineers are women, according to Statistics Canada.
The small percentage of female engineers in the workforce could be due to a lack of role models, Cody said, but also because “girls are still told that engineering and computer science are for boys.”
Parents and schools administrators need to tell girls that they are just as capable as boys when it comes to math and science, she said.
“We are equal in our brain, equal in our abilities and we should be equal in numbers.”
Concordia President Alan Shepard said Cody’s generosity is “a watershed moment for engineering and computer science in Canada.”
“Our engineering and computer science programs are among the strongest in Canada and the world,” Shepard said in a statement.
“This gift allows us to build on the incredible strength that is already known, recognized and respected globally and to make it even stronger for the next generation.”
After a successful career, Cody said she is delighted to be able to give back to Concordia.
“I felt it was my responsibility,” said Cody, who is retired and lives in Toronto.
“I believe more in giving than in keeping and I am thrilled that I can do it.”