Most typical civil engineering origin stories include variations of the phrases “liked building things as a kid” or “loved math and science in high school.” And why not? They’re almost truisms.
Except you won’t find them in Rachel Grafman’s origin story.
“I didn’t actually take precalculus in high school,” Grafman, S.M.ASCE, said.
Yet here she is, on the brink of a civil engineering degree from the University of Maryland and honored by ASCE as one of the 2016 New Faces of Civil Engineering – College.
“I’d always grown up with this understanding that what I wanted to do in life was make the world a better place,” said Grafman, who decided that meant pursuing a career in civil and environmental engineering. “I started college a little bit behind in math and couldn’t take engineering classes until second semester. I had to take a few summer classes and really apply myself to get out in four years.”
It’s not as if Grafman wasn’t a good student in high school. It’s just that her strengths lay more in the liberal arts. She grew up taking classes more related to international affairs, including learning Hebrew, German, and Italian, and entered Maryland with, as she says, “enough English credits for nearly two people.”
She worked to complete her required STEM courses until a three-week, immersive statics class the summer after her freshman year tested her determination. She received a non-passing grade and went home for a weekend to White Plains, NY, to mull her options.
“I turned my butt around and petitioned to join the six-week class,” Grafman said.
On the way back to College Park, she crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Brooklyn, and something changed.
“I saw the pins and the rollers on the bridge,” Grafman said. “In the classes they draw a basic concept of them, but to actually see them, it just all made sense. I definitely had a light-bulb moment, for sure.”
Grafman returned to campus and joined another summer statics class halfway through its run. She caught up with two midterms in one week. Not only did she pass this time, she got an A.
“Once it clicked, it clicked,” Grafman said.
After progressing so much in her four years in the program, she’s now helping other first-year Maryland students with their own journeys, mentoring in the SEEDS (Successful Engineering Education and Development Support) program. Grafman is also is the vice president of operations for the Maryland ASCE Student Chapter.
She credits the efforts of Paige Smith, the director of Maryland’s Women in Engineering progam, Flexus (a women-in-engineering learning community), and the Maryland Concrete Canoe team as key components to her successful transition from word nerd to engineering geek.
“Dr. Smith has always been one of my strongest supporters after my family,” Grafman said. “She is constantly available, responsive and doing an incredible job putting me in touch with resources from scholarships to academic support to networking opportunities.”
“Flexus and Concrete Canoe are definitely the other two reasons I made it through to where I am today. I was able to develop a social and professional network on campus from day one and got to meet women [role models] back when I was terrified of just taking a chemistry class,” Grafman said. “So I realized if these women could do it, so could I.”
ASCE’s New Faces of Civil Engineering recognition programs highlight the next generation of civil engineering leaders. By showcasing young, diverse, talented engineers the program shows that engineering is an exciting profession open to everyone. Ten honorees are selected by ASCE in each of two divisions: collegiate and professional.
Honorees receive recognition during National Engineers Week, which runs through Feb. 27, and at ASCE’s annual Outstanding Projects And Leaders (OPAL) Gala, March 17, in Arlington, VA.