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Volunteering to Organize Student Conference Pays Immediate Dividends for Civil Engineering Student

When Kathy Winborne was in the middle of organizing the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) student conference that was held in Virginia Beach earlier this month, the Old Dominion University student said she felt a little overwhelmed at times.

In addition to her studies as a junior in ODU's civil engineering program, Winborne is president of the ASCE student chapter on campus. "Usually people don't run the student chapter and the conference. I was really busy," Winborne said.

But the reward for all of Winborne's hard work came while the conference was still under way. Keynote speaker Linda Figg, a nationally renowned bridge designer, offered Winborne a summer internship at her firm, Figg Engineering Group.

Winborne was stunned.

"I had already accepted a summer position at Clark Nexsen. I truly had no idea this was going to happen," the 22-year-old Chesapeake resident said.

And Figg, who designed the new I-35 bridge in Minneapolis to replace the bridge that collapsed in 2007, wasn't through with surprises.

A week later, on her way from the company's Tallahassee, Fla., headquarters, Figg landed her private jet in Norfolk, picked up Winborne and fellow students Corinne Sims and Jeremy Pianalto, and flew them to Washington, D.C., as her guests for the ASCE OPAL Awards, known as the "Academy Awards" of civil engineering.

"It was cool to wear a gown; the gala was black tie," Winborne said. "But it's even cooler to go work for her this summer."

The internship runs for two months, starting June 15, and Winborne will be put up in an apartment by Figg Engineering. "It's really exciting. I just want to go in and learn as much as I can," she said.

That's what Winborne has tried to do at ODU for the past three years, since graduating from Chesapeake's Great Bridge High School.

ODU has worked hard to attract women engineering students for several years, but Winborne said she's still easily outnumbered by her male colleagues.

Her secret weapon? Winborne is not shy, and isn't afraid to put her hand up to volunteer for additional responsibility.

"I don't think a lot of students understand how important it is to get involved in other projects. I was steel bridge (competition) captain last year, and this year I'm ASCE president and chaired the conference," Winborne said. She has no doubt the added duties helped her land the internship at Figg Engineering Group.

Winborne says that "it's really not that bad" being outnumbered by male colleagues at ODU. "The guys I've sat with in class, and worked on projects with, haven't treated me any differently. But it is cool to show girls and guys that anybody can be an engineer - as long as you love math."

Winborne, who calls Linda Figg a trailblazer for women engineers, adds that she hopes to follow in Figg's footsteps. She said Figg is a role model because she succeeded, yet didn't found her company and bid on national projects just to prove that women can compete in field. "I think she's kind of like myself in that when I walk into a room full of guys, I don't even think of them as men while I'm a woman. I think of all of us as colleagues."

Winborne, who hopes to work in bridge engineering when she graduates from ODU, said she likes the "hidden" public service component of bridge construction. While many people take bridges for granted as they routinely drive across them, it is the designers and contractors who are intimately aware of all the hard work and care that goes in to creating safe bridges for the general public.

"I like how when you're working on a bridge design, you kind of sneak in and do your public service," Winborne said.

This article was posted on: April 30, 2009

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