From Shy, Introverted International Student to Real-World Engineer: A Professional Roadmap
Image credit: Arkadi Bojarinov/iStockphoto
Over the years, I have been frequently asked if it was hard to come to the United States as an international student and if there were a lot of differences between my life back home and the culture in the U.S. Naturally, the answer to those questions is a resounding “Yes!”
First, let me introduce myself.
My name is Luis Duque.; I am originally from Colombia, and I came to the U.S. in 2012 to begin my B.S. in civil engineering at South Dakota State University. You may be wondering how I ended up in South Dakota of all places. The short and simple answer is that I was recruited to play tennis for the university.
My entire life I have been shy and introverted. I did not enjoy speaking to big crowds at all and only had a few very close friends. However, as you advance in your career and accomplish goals, you will likely be faced with speaking in front of crowds. My first time learning this was my senior year of high school when I had to give the valedictorian graduation speech in front of the entire school.
One Door Opens …
I have always known I wanted to be a structural engineer. From a young age, my dad, who is an architect, used to take me to job sites with him where he would explain the ins and outs of construction to me. I was set to achieve my dream of becoming a structural engineer, and there was nothing that could stop me.
But my dream started in 2012 with a less-than-desirable semester at SDSU; I earned a meager 2.9 GPA that semester, which made me feel confused and lonely. I realized that something needed to change. Being an international student, I was going to have to put in extra effort to better understand the topics and pay extra attention during lectures. I was able to bounce back with a 3.75 GPA the following semester. I found myself enjoying classes more and more as they became more technical and further related to structural engineering. I ended my undergraduate degree with a 3.45 GPA.
… As Another Door Closes
Meanwhile, tennis had been my life since I was 8 years old. I practiced three to four hours every day after school and constantly traveled around Colombia, as well as sometimes internationally in South America and the U.S., to attend tennis tournaments. Becoming a student-athlete in the U.S. was a dream come true, but I soon realized it was not what I expected and that I was missing valuable time to advance in my career.
I knew I was not going to become a professional tennis player, nor was I going to make a living out of tennis. So, in 2014, I decided to end my tennis career – one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. However, I know it was the best decision for my future.
Shortly after I retired from tennis, I was able to find a job as a student operator at the city wastewater treatment plant that was managed by the university. Before I start this section, I want to say that international students are only permitted to work for the university, but we can work off-campus with special permission in specific positions for a limited time (ask your international student advisor for more information).
Paying Your Dues
Other jobs I had were Custodial and Maintenance Summer Crew for the university, Quality Control Technician at a ready-mix company, and International Project Manager at one of the largest LED video display companies in the world. None of these jobs had anything to do with structural engineering, but they all gave me the foundational skills I needed to succeed in the future.
I learned that no matter how big the company or how technical the job was (or wasn’t), I needed to be on time, responsible for my tasks, and acting as a leader. Many young people are afraid to take these types of jobs because they don’t pay well or they don’t look good on the resume, but I think these are the jobs that build our character. They teach skills that more technical jobs may not be able to teach us right away. I worked fixing furniture and painting residence halls the semester after I graduated from my undergraduate degree. I had a bachelor’s degree and was working in the residence halls because that was the only job option for me before starting my master’s program the following fall.
Since my sophomore year, it was very clear to me that if I wanted to be a successful structural engineer, I needed to pursue a higher degree. After deliberating for a few months and trying to make the best decision, I ended up staying at SDSU. I was able to get a fully funded research project that paid for my entire degree, plus gave me the chance to perform some cool research.
My research was focused on inspecting bridges using a drone (you can learn more about it here). Through this research, I started to realize that the skills I had gained previously were becoming useful. Doing research is not like a job; it is a strange mixture of working and studying. The hardest part was not having a set schedule since I was working in my own spare time (many times late at night) and without a definite answer at the end.
Some days were more challenging than others, but I learned a lot through the process. My advisor really challenged me and always asked more of me than I thought possible to give. I was able to graduate with my master’s degree a semester early, writing four progress reports, a final report, three conference papers, four journal papers and my thesis (of which the conference papers, journal papers and thesis were all written during my final semester). Needless to say, it was a very stressful and busy semester trying to finish all this as well as my coursework. I felt a sense of accomplishment and relief when I was done and finally got my diploma. I knew I had to make a good decision after thoroughly enjoying every class I took and learning so much. I ended up graduating with a 4.0 GPA, and was ready to start my first “real-world” job.
Entering the ‘Real World’
Due to family circumstances, I did not pursue a full-time job right away. This was mainly because I knew we were going to move out-of-state in six months. I was very fortunate to have found a long-term internship at an ethanol company, where I was able to help with designing their structures. I finally felt like I was doing what I love, and, while it was not a full-time job, I took that time to learn as much as I could. After the six months passed, we moved to Colorado to start our new adventure. I had finally landed my first real-world, full-time job, and I was ready to go. I was able to quickly apply all I had learned both technically and nontechnically from my previous jobs. At the time of writing this, it has been one year since I started this new job, and I have already been given some project management tasks. My abilities to learn, be flexible, and be diligent in my work – all of which I learned through previous jobs – have allowed me to quickly take on more responsibilities.
Lessons learned: Be humble and accept the work you are given – even the most experienced engineers started with the simplest of jobs. Leave your entitlement at home and accept the opportunities you are given. Accept and embrace your mistakes. Come to the understanding that you do not know everything, but be willing to learn something new every day.
Getting Licensed with an International Engineering Degree
I have received several emails from engineers looking to get licensed in the US having a degree from a university outside the US.
While there are several combinations between education and examination, here are some steps you need to follow in order to get your professional license in the US:
- Find out if your degree is from a university accredited by ABET (find a list of approved universities here)
- Pass the FE exam
- Complete four years of professional engineering work
- Pass the PE exam
If your degree is not from an ABET accredited university, you are encouraged to contact the licensing board at the state you wish to practice and get your credentials evaluated. Similarly, if you have professional experience, it is encouraged that you contact the state licensing board directly to get accredited in the US. Requirements vary from state to state, these guidelines serve as general requirements to help guide you through the general steps to get your professional license in the US.
For more information on the requirements visit the NCEES website.
Luis is currently working as a Structural Engineer at DLK Engineering. DLK focuses on residential, custom residential, remodels, rehabilitation, commercial structures, and more. The variety of work including different structural materials create a diverse environment and allows engineers to be more diverse and versatile on their work. During his graduate studies, he worked on a project entitled "Evaluation of UAV as a Bridge Inspection Tool". His research was conducted to promote and develop new and innovative techniques to inspect bridges to decrease cost and risks involved with current inspection practices. He is a former tennis player and Masters of Science student in Civil Engineering with Structural Engineering emphasis at South Dakota State University. Member of Chi Epsilon Civil Engineering Honor Society, Phi Kappa Phi, and former Vice President of EWB-SDSU.
He is a member of the SEI Student Initiatives, SEI Timber Bridges, and SEI Business Practices Committees. Additionally, Luis is involved with the Denver ASCE YMG where he serves as the Networking chair for the 2019-2020 year. He has recently joined the SEI Global Activities Divison and will serve as the liaison between SEI in the US and the ASCE Colombia group to establish and SEI group there. At the ASCE national level, Luis helps in a variety of ways including mentoring, Career by Design topic moderator, and other miscellaneous activities. Also, he has been actively involved in EWB as he helps communities in Colorado, Guatemala, and Puerto Rico with limited resources overcome daily challenges. His goal is to, as he advances in his professional career, increase his involvement with EWB, ASCE, and SEI to promote and assist communities, not only in the US but around the globe with their engineering challenges and provide them with a brighter future.