This blog post is part of a series written by the Viterbi Student Ambassadors, focusing on engineering in our own words. For more posts on this topic, check out viterbi voices.

USC's concrete canoe, one of the annual projects completed by our ASCE chapter (American Society of Civil Engineers) for competition in the spring with other schools in the region

Those of you who have been following this blog, or who know me personally, know that I wasn’t always studying civil engineering. I came to USC as a biomedical engineering major and spent a year and a half pursuing that track. Halfway through my sophomore year, however, I had a crazy idea to switch my life and major around and become a civil engineer. (Read more about my decision here.) This meant that I got to discover a whole new world of engineering — so here’s a little bit about civil engineering, in my own words.

Essentially, civil engineers deal with infrastructure. That means buildings, roads and road networks, bridges, water systems, waste management systems, etc. Personally, I was attracted to the major for the opportunity to work in developing countries, and my involvement in student organizations and research reflects that. For the past year I have worked in a water quality lab testing the effectiveness of a biosand water filter against bacteria, viruses, and other disease causing goodies that tend to find their way into water sources.

Fellow researcher Hannah Gray, preparing water samples for testing

My involvement with Engineers Without Borders has been one of the biggest ways I’ve learned about the engineering challenges in the developing world, and has also made me more and more certain that I want to use my engineering training in developing countries. I can’t encourage you enough to get involved with student organizations related to your major in college. Sometimes the technical classes can get a little boring and seem far removed from any practical work (and let’s face it — the practical application of math and science is why most people study engineering in the first place). However, since I’ve gotten the chance to travel to Honduras and to help design a rainwater catchment system with EWB, I have such a better perspective on the usefulness of all those technical classes. My classmates might be fighting to keep their eyes open during Intro to Structural Design, but I’m loving it and constantly thinking about how useful this information will be when it comes to designing future phases of our rainwater catchment project.

Alexa gathering elevation data next to the schoolhouse

Nothing makes you appreciate homework problems where the height of a building is given, than having to climb up a rickety ladder to measure it.

So THAT'S why it's important to calculate the maximum bending stress that a material can take.

The civil engineering curriculum allows you to select some “elective” classes from within department, rather than mandating every single course you take. Last semester I got the chance to take a class about construction estimating from my faculty mentor, Professor Koffman. I learned so much about the construction process as well as how different materials are priced (which definitely came in handy in Honduras). We also had the chance to go on a couple of field trips to construction sites around Los Angeles, where we saw projects at various stages of the process and talked with construction managers and other professionals.

As it turns out, I’m still learning what it means to be a civil engineer, and I’m sure I’ll keep learning for a long time. This summer I’ll be interning with an organization in Colorado Springs called Engineering Ministries International, and I’m so excited to be able to learn new things about design, construction, drafting, and so much more. Being an engineering student is really a lot of fun. Faculty and professionals love to pass on their wisdom to ensure that the next generation is ready to continue the tradition of great engineering and fellow students love to get together and share everything they’ve learned. In the end, that’s what engineering is — collaboration to solve old problems with new ideas. How exciting is that?