Gina Cody arrived in Montreal with $2,000 in her pocket and little more than a dream to become an engineer. It was 1979. Her homeland of Iran was in the throes of a revolution, and she escaped on the last flight out.

“Overwhelmed” and “lonely,” she got a toehold in her new country thanks to a scholarship in engineering at Concordia University in Montreal. Forty years later, a successful career behind her, Dr. Cody is giving back.

The 61-year-old is donating $15-million to her alma mater, a gift that will be used to increase diversity in a traditionally male-dominated field. The Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science becomes the first engineering faculty in Canada – and one of the first internationally – to be named after a woman.

“I have a message for all the young girls around the world who have been told engineering and computers are for boys only,” Dr. Cody said on Monday in a campus ceremony. “Hear me now – my name is Gina Cody and I am a woman and I am an engineer. This is my school and I say engineering and computer science is for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or wealth.”

Dr. Cody becomes a potent symbol of generosity and success by a new Canadian as immigration is dominating political discussions in Quebec. One of the main parties in Monday’s election, the Coalition Avenir Québec, wants to reduce immigration and test newcomers for values and French.

Dr. Cody, who lives in Toronto, says she is aware of the debates and hopes her story will illustrate how immigrants contribute to the province.

“I’m hoping that I can send the right message to change those who feel we [immigrants] are a burden,” Dr. Cody said in an interview. “I believe there are many immigrants like me who are part of this society. And they are giving back.”

She says she is deeply attached to the city and province that welcomed her.

“This province was great to me,” she said. “I have never forgotten that. I live in Toronto, but I’m coming back to Montreal to give back to the city that started me off.”

The gift will endow three research chairs and offer scholarships aimed at boosting diversity in a field in which women remain the exception. Women account for only 20 per cent of students in undergraduate engineering programs in Canada and fewer than 13 per cent of working engineers.

“If they can see a woman from Iran can do it, they can, too,” she said.

Growing up in Iran, Dr. Cody – who also goes by Gina Parvaneh Cody – benefited from parents who supported and encouraged her. Her father had her teach during summers at the boys’ high school he owned. Her mother told her the only way to become independent as a woman was through education.

Dr. Cody got her master’s degree at Concordia and, in 1989, became the first woman at the university to earn a PhD in building engineering. She eventually became executive chair and principal shareholder of CCI Group Inc., an engineering consulting firm. She sold her company and retired in 2016.

Since the mid-1980s, the percentage of female donors to philanthropic causes has been expanding. Women tripled the value of their donations between 1985 and 2014, while those by men roughly doubled, according to Imagine Canada.

New Canadians are also offering gifts to their alma maters for research chairs, schools, labs and scholarships.

“Dr. Cody represents a growing commitment [among immigrants] to giving back, but also paying it forward through higher education,” said Krishan Mehta, a researcher in Toronto on immigrant philanthropy and a volunteer with the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Dr. Cody’s gift to Concordia will annually support four PhD entrance scholarships of $20,000 each, and 10 undergraduate entrance scholarships of $5,000 each. A fund of $250,000 will go toward unspecified measures to increase the presence of women and minorities in the faculty. Dr. Cody said she hopes that one day she will no longer be exceptional in engineering. “My hope is that a few years from now, there will be so many women like me that I will be forgotten.”

The Globe and Mail, September 24, 2018