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Civil engineering student leader shares her path to graduation

My name is Alexis Withers, and I am a senior Civil Engineering major, Sustainable Infrastructure minor from Newark, DE. I’d like to take the time to reflect back on my four years here at UD, specifically with the assistance and guidance of faculty and staff within the College of Engineering.

It all started freshman year when I noticed I was falling behind in Calculus 1. I remember thinking: “Alexis, you still have time; you can pull it together; you can teach yourself this material; you can do it.” However, after only taking honors pre-calculus in high school, I felt very unprepared for UD’s intense Calc 1. After consulting with my faculty advisor, Professor Nii Attoh-Okine, we agreed I needed to audit the course and retake it at a later time. I then reached out to academic advisor, Ms. Sarah Palmer, and not only did we figure out when I should retake Calc 1, but we planned out how it would impact the remainder of my freshman year. With the help of Professor Attoh-Okine and Ms. Palmer, at the end of my freshman year, I had a detailed academic plan for my remaining 3.5 semesters at UD that incorporated retaking Calc 1. Four years later, I am still on my plan to success.

Ms. Palmer has continued to support my success. I met with her frequently, at least once each semester, to ensure that I was still on track to graduate in four years. Ms. Palmer introduced me to ACES (Ambassadors for Civil & Environmental Students), a program within the College of Engineering where current students give tours and host panel discussions with incoming freshmen and prospective students and answers their questions about Civil Engineering, the College of Engineering, or UD in general. A main reason why I joined ACES was because I wish I had this insight and information before I came to UD so I could have been prepared for the Calculus courses. With my involvement in this program, I can help students in a way that would have benefited me 3.5 years ago. I am thankful for Ms. Palmer for exposing me to this opportunity and helping me build my academic plan for success.

Fast forward to junior year… I always dreamt of studying abroad, and one of my lifelong dreams was to swim in the Great Barrier Reef. During the winter 2018 semester, I studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia, taking Transportation Engineering and Intro to Sustainable Infrastructure. I even saved up a few hundred dollars so I could travel to Australia early and take a snorkeling tour at the Great Barrier Reef – it was epic! During this trip, I became very close with my instructor, Professor Sue McNeil.  I began calling, emailing, and messaging Professor McNeil on a weekly basis as I fell in love with Transportation Engineering and was thinking about pursing an additional degree in this field. With the counseling and advisement from Professor McNeil, I was accepted into UD’s CIEG Master’s program, and I will begin my graduate studies in Summer 2020.

During my career at UD, there was a point where I began to feel very discouraged and wasn’t sure if I was going to graduate in May 2020. It was not because of failure to complete academic requirements, but because my mother had become very sick and was fighting an open wound infection in her stomach for over a year. My mom is the rock of my family, and since she was missing in action, I had to step up and take care of my family. It was to the point where I thought I needed to go right into the industry after graduation (instead of going to graduate school) so I could make money to keep a roof over our heads and keep food on the table. During this time, I worked 30 hours a week at my internship, was enrolled in 18 credits, and held three registered student organization (RSO) executive board positions all while commuting from home. I would wake up at 6 a.m., head to the hospital to see my mom (had to make it by 8 a.m. when the doctors did rounds), and then I went straight to campus for class. There were times I was late to class or had to miss class to be there for my mom. I studied for final exams in the hospital next to my mom’s bed and surprisingly, this was the best I performed on any set of final exams – crazy, right?!

I then faced my own medical challenge – I had my ankle completely reconstructed with three screws and a plate. I had surgery one week before taking the GRE and two weeks from a big senior design presentation. Teachers and classmates kept saying “it’s okay to reschedule; someone else can present,” etc. but I knew I had the strength in me to prevail. I reached out to Assistant Dean Chuck Shermeyer and Ms. Marianne Johnson, academic program manager, to seek help for a GRE waiver since money was still tight during this time. Little did I know, I was going to be receiving a stipend form the RISE (Resources to Inspire Successful Engineers) program that would help cover the cost of my GRE exam. All I remember thinking is: “God is so good!” Every time I was in a tough situation, I reached out to my network within the College of Engineering and took full advantage of the resources around me.

During the fall semester of my senior year, I was thinking of ways to give back to the people within the College of Engineering who assisted me throughout my career at UD. Around this same time, Dean Shermeyer, Mrs. Theresa Kalesse, academic advisor, Mrs. Michele Brown, administrative assistant, and Mrs. Sue Zatto, coordinator of events and data management, were planning for the 2020 Engineers Week. I heard they were looking for a Lead Engineer to facilitate all EWeek festivities, and I figured this would be a great opportunity. I, along with the four staff members mentioned above, volunteered our time inside and outside typical hours and worked behind the scenes to plan student-focused events. In this process, I have grown strong bonds with these individuals, and I sometimes even stop by the office to say hi and briefly catch up before heading to class. I greatly care for these individuals and I am confident they care for me as well. When Mrs. Kalesse’s oldest son died, I knew I needed to step up and take over some of her tasks to get the job done – I didn’t want her to stress or worry about EWeek; I had her back. When Dean Shermeyer’s mom passed away, I stepped up and took over a few speaking arrangements during the closing reception in his place. And Mrs. Brown kept us all together. She facilitated our meetings, typed solicitation letters, made sure we had necessary supplies, etc. And Sue… well Sue and I bonded in the car while driving to various solicitation sites – she is one funny lady. I am grateful for this experience as it introduced me to these amazing, supportive, and caring people who have had such a positive impact on my career here at UD.

I am now two months away from graduation – time sure does fly when you’re having fun. Being a Civil Engineer requires hard work and dedication, and because of my unique experiences, I have gained these essential skills and then some. I live by the quote “if you risk nothing, then you risk everything.” I risked putting so much on my plate and possibly taking on too much so that I could have an impact within my RSO involvement and within the College of Engineering. I spent long nights in the library so that I could catch up on coursework and make sure I truly understood the material. I sacrificed Tuesday and Thursday night bar shenanigans at Klondike Kate’s and Grottos so that I could ensure I was going to get A’s and get into graduate school. I am forever grateful for my experience and would like to thank all faculty and staff within the College of Engineering that have helped me get to where I am today. I am eager and excited to see where the future takes me!