Most people are teenagers when they enter college and have to choose a major. I was a 17-year-old student at the University of Illinois–Champaign, and I chose to major in finance.
What did I really know about finance? What do most students know about what a lifetime in their chosen major or career path will be like?
Many students, including 17-year-old me, choose a career path based on what they think or what someone told them will be a “good job.” The negative aspects of most professions are not the ones that are emphasized at career fairs. So, unfortunately, many people don’t find out until after beginning their career that their chosen path is not the best fit for them.
My story is a little different.
I had to leave the University of Illinois after my second year because of financial hardship. I began working full-time as a drywall laborer to support myself. I did that for three years, then switched to concrete because I liked heavy work. I tried to pursue my education over the years, but my long work hours and physically demanding job made it nearly impossible to do both. Finally, after 18 years as a construction laborer, I was able to pursue my education full-time and returned to school as a nontraditional student in 2017 to become a structural engineer.
I graduate this month from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a B.S. in civil engineering. My goal is to obtain a fellowship or scholarship for my M.S. in structural engineering. I hope to combine my field experience with my engineering education to bridge the gap between the field and the office. Many of the projects that I worked on were high-rises. I look forward to continuing to learn how to design these structures and aspire to participate in cutting-edge research. Witnessing the improvements made in structural design during my time in the field inspires me to contribute to propelling the industry forward.
My life experiences have given me the tools to manage hardships, and nothing will prevent me from accomplishing all that I am capable of. My difficult past drives me to prevent others from enduring the hardships I endured. I try to help my classmates by sharing my difficult path and providing the guidance that I did not have, because I want them to succeed and be happy.
It has led me to develop the ASCE Legends program, which pairs students with retired engineers to help students choose the best-fit career path while giving retirees the opportunity to share a lifetime of experience.
What if my life did not take those turns and I completed that finance degree? I could have been content in a finance career, but it would not have been the best fit for me. I have met many civil engineers who are not happy in their chosen paths but are too afraid to switch to a discipline that is a better fit. Many feel that it’s too late, and they are stuck because the investment in their education was discipline-focused.
But there are so many different career paths that can be pursued within civil engineering. Do the research and find your best fit if you are unhappy. You do not have to start over in school if you already have a degree in civil engineering. Don’t be afraid to pursue an additional specialized degree in a discipline if necessary.
The time will pass regardless of what you do. Wouldn’t you rather know that it is passing while you pursue what will make you happier in your career instead of dreading your remaining years doing what doesn’t fit?
I am older than many of my professors; old enough to be the mother of many of my classmates. Why would I dwell on that in a negative way? I get the opportunity to share my wisdom and help guide my classmates to prevent them from choosing a path that does not fit them, all while pursuing my own path. My experience has been positive. I know that I would have regretted not pursuing the career I wanted out of a fear of change, and I do not want to see others regret it.
I hope my story can inspire someone to pursue their happiness. It is never too late!
Michelle Calcagno is a senior civil engineering student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She spent 18 years working in the construction industry, mostly as a concrete laborer, before returning to school to become a structural engineer. Michelle has begun an internship with Thornton Tomasetti and loves working on diverse projects.
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