Designed for Action: Junior Civil Engineering Major Makes an Impact in Washington, D.C.
At York College, students aren’t just reading textbooks and listening to lectures. They’re working on community projects, solving real-world problems, and using their education to effect change. In Designed for Action, we meet the students who are making an impact outside of the classroom.
Zoe Kluegel ’25 wants to make an impact through her work in Civil Engineering.
The junior from Fairfax, VA, spent this past summer working a co-op with general contractor Whiting-Turner in Washington, D.C., at the National Gallery of Art.
The experience was illuminating, introducing Zoe to the field of civil engineering outside of college.
“Working on this site was a great and unique experience, and I couldn’t have asked for a better first co-op,” she adds.
Working at the heart of the nation
Working for the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company was Zoe’s first co-op. Whiting-Turner is a general contractor, that “is in charge of all the behind-the-scenes work to make something go from a plot of land to a new building or project,” according to Zoe.
All Civil Engineering students are required to complete two co-ops for their major, one during the summer before junior year and the other the following spring.
“When we have the co-op/internship, we work full-time at a civil engineering-related company for the full length of a semester. This ends up being about 15 weeks of 40-hour work weeks, so it’s a good amount of time to get experience,” she says.
The group Zoe was placed in works mostly around the Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. areas. She was lucky enough to be assigned to a team working in the heart of Washington, D.C., at the National Gallery of Art—a “prestigious” project, she says.
“My team consisted of a project manager, an assistant project manager, a field engineer, and a superintendent. I split my time between field and office work, managing quality control items and working closely with subcontractors,” she explains. “I was responsible for updating all the work that was being done with descriptions and photos on a task manager application. I also worked on packaging submissions of proposed products to use in construction and requests for interpretations to send to the architect or owner’s reps for questions about the design or construction of a process.”
Since Zoe lives so close to Washington, D.C., she’s visited the National Gallery of Art numerous times, but it was a different, more meaningful experience working there in the summer, she says.
“I love the city environment, so I had fun going out to the lunch spots with my coworkers and running errands when we had to get something. A city is always full of people and cars, and especially in D.C., tourists. Since the National Gallery of Art was still open and operational during the construction, I got to interact with a lot of different people,” she adds.
Her biggest challenge over the course of the co-op was learning the importance of communication in the professional field. Zoe had to learn how to communicate with various types of working professionals in the civil engineering field and navigate the dynamics those relationships created.
“The construction industry relies heavily on communication between owners, general contractors, subcontractors, and second-tier subcontractors. It is a very important skill that I had to learn to be successful,” she explains. “The Civil Engineering program at York helped me prepare for this skill in all the undergraduate courses.
“We are required to present multiple engineering projects throughout our courses, which helped me with engineering communication specifically. In addition, the general education courses I took helped me become comfortable and confident in my presentation skills, which helped me speak up in meetings during the internship.”
The most important thing Zoe learned from her co-op in addition to critical skills for navigating the civil engineering environment, including communication, was an introduction to the logistics behind construction management.
“I stuck my toes in this side of civil engineering and had a great experience, so I am eager to see what the next opportunity brings me for my second co-op,” she says. “The most exciting part of my co-op was working in downtown Washington, D.C., at one of the most prestigious art galleries in the world. Now I get to tell people that I worked at the National Gallery of Art, which is something that not many people get to say for an internship experience.”
Making an impact
Zoe’s experience at York College has been “amazing,” so far. In addition to her rigorous academic schedule and co-op/internship experiences, she’s a student-athlete, helping lead her lacrosse team to the elite eight in the Division III NCAA tournament in the 2023 season.
“I love being a student-athlete and being on a competitive lacrosse team, while simultaneously getting an engineering education that I am passionate about. The Civil Engineering program at York sets the students up for a successful career,” she adds.
In addition to lacrosse, Zoe is also a part of ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) and WISE (Women in Science and Engineering). ASCE aided Zoe’s search for a co-op when it came time to look for one. She recommends that other Civil Engineering students on a similar path take their time deciding on an opportunity to pursue. Use your networks, she says.
“Take your time in making your decisions. It is best to start early and use the networking opportunities and the resources that the Career Center and York College provide because it will largely benefit you,” she adds. “The point of internships is to get knowledge and practice on your subject so that you solidify your interests and the career you want to pursue. Don’t be afraid to ask questions in interviews! Interviewers love it when students ask questions and come prepared with specific questions about their company. It shows that you are serious about the opportunity, and it might make you stand out.”
While she’s still figuring out what area of civil engineering she’d like to pursue, Zoe is grateful for the opportunity to work in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2023.
“I got to see my favorite monuments every day just by looking outside. I have a special appreciation for the city that represents the United States, because I got the experience of visiting it every day and seeing how tourists from other countries admire the monuments and learn about American culture,” she adds. “Working on a prestigious building has had a great effect on me, because every time I go into the city, I can say I was a part of that project and hope that people get inspired by the buildings like I was. I felt like I actually made an impact, and that is my main goal as an aspiring engineer. I want to make a difference in the civil world.”