Adapting to a Civil Engineering Work Environment as an International Student

Jennifer Dueñas López, MS’23, civil engineering, completed a bachelor’s degree in transportation and highway engineering in her home country of Colombia before moving to the Boston area. After graduating from Northeastern with a master’s degree in 2023, she returned to her co-op at HDR to work full-time.

For Jennifer Dueñas López, MS’23, civil engineering, Northeastern’s co-op program was a defining experience as an international student. In her home country of Colombia, she completed a bachelor’s degree in transportation and highway engineering in 2018. When she moved to the Boston area, she started looking for schools where she could pursue a master’s degree. Northeastern’s co-op program and its closeness to home were the deciding factors that made it the right choice for Dueñas López in the end.

During her time at Northeastern, Dueñas López worked on co-op at HDR as a civil engineering intern. Following on from the skills she had built through her bachelor’s degree, she mostly focused on highway and transport design projects for ramps, side walls and roadways.

Thanks to the skills Dueñas López enhanced through her introduction to co-op course, the interview process was quick and successful. HDR viewed her as such a strong candidate that they hired her within the week.

“I sent my resume to HDR on Friday, and they called me on Monday,” Dueñas López says. “I got my interview on Wednesday, and they hired me on Wednesday.”

Once she started at HDR, she applied herself to projects that allowed her to interact with clients and see the impact of her work. This helped her figure out the difference between what works in practice and on paper.

“You need to make your point as an engineer and try to understand what works in real life, not just on paper,” Dueñas López says. “I have amazing professors that always try to give us real examples, but it’s very different when you’re on co-op and you’re involved with a client.”

A major part of what made her experience at HDR so impactful was the welcoming environment that the company created. English is Dueñas López’s second language, so she was unfamiliar at first with some of the technical terms used at HDR. By not being afraid to ask questions, she didn’t let this stand in her way.

“It’s great that [I had] a good environment in the workplace and that people were patient and could answer my questions, so that was particularly helpful for me,” Dueñas López says.

Her enjoyment of her projects and her comfort in the workplace motivated her to stay with HDR after her co-op ended. For her final semester at Northeastern, she switched to part-time while staying in the same position and returned to full-time as a civil designer after she graduated.

Dueñas López after graduating from Northeastern University.

While at HDR, Dueñas López was able to apply her knowledge from several courses, such as the ramp guidelines for people with disabilities, which she learned about in a course with CEE Professor Peter Furth.

“For a couple of projects, I was able to give my opinion because we had just learned that, so that was a huge advantage for me,” Dueñas López says.

Similarly, her co-op work was applicable towards courses she took in her final semester, such as one with CEE Teaching Professor Daniel Dulaski.

“I already knew what Professor Dualski was talking about, so the co-op was very helpful,” Dueñas López says. “My classes were helpful for my co-op, and after I did my co-op, I had a better understanding of things.”

Dueñas López had plenty of prior engineering experience before starting her master’s at Northeastern, but co-op gave her a chance to see the differences in the industry and the workforce between Colombia and the United States. She says that there are quite a few differences, but co-op helped her adjust to a new work environment.

“That experience was something that made me more confident once I graduated because I had that experience already working,” Dueñas López says. “Without the co-op, looking for a job after graduation would have been harder for me.”

Now that Dueñas López is working full-time at HDR, she has greater responsibilities and is involved with bigger projects. Because she had prior experience from co-op, she was able to start a full-time role without being treated as an entry-level employee.

“Because I already had experience working here [and] people knew me, the responsibilities changed from week one,” Dueñas López says.

In the future, she hopes to apply her interest in cycling systems to her work at HDR by focusing on projects that improve their integration.

“I really would like to work on projects where I can use my knowledge to design bicycle infrastructure, not just in a way that works for the drivers, but actually works for people that ride bikes,” Dueñas López says.

Related Faculty: Peter G. Furth, Daniel M. Dulaski

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering