Building the Future: A Student’s Guide to Civil Engineering at University

Adriana
Urban Minds
Published in
6 min readApr 11, 2023

Hey there, I’m Adriana, and I’ve been volunteering as a Growth Coordinator at Urban Minds for the past 2.5 years.

Group photo at the 2023 1UP Conference

My role is all about introducing high school students to exciting careers in city-building. At the 1UP Conference in March 2023, lots of folks were curious about why I decided to pursue civil engineering instead of architecture or urban planning. To be honest, I totally get that nagging feeling of uncertainty — I went through the same thing back in my final year of high school! But now that I’m studying Civil Engineering at the University of Waterloo, I can confidently say that it was a good, albeit calculated, decision that was right for me. And I want to make it easier for you to make your own decision too!

Let’s dive in! First and foremost, let’s address the question on everyone’s minds: what really is civil engineering? If you were like me back in high school, you might picture Bob the Builder. That thought is definitely reinforced once you Google “Civil Engineering,” and you come across a lot of yellow hard hats and construction sites, like this photo:

Photo by Scott Blake on Unsplash

There is ONE picture in my camera roll which very much does fit the stereotype though:

Me helping build a net-zero house for Warrior Home, a student design team at UWaterloo!

However, a civil engineer’s role is much more comprehensive than that. In short, civil engineering is a branch of engineering that deals with the design, construction, and maintenance of infrastructure. This can include anything from buildings and bridges to water treatment plants and transportation systems. Civil engineers work to improve and maintain the built environment we live in, ensuring that structures and systems are safe, efficient, and sustainable. A civil engineer’s day-to-day might include conducting site visits to assess project feasibility, meeting with clients and stakeholders to discuss project goals and requirements, using computer-aided design (CAD) software to create detailed plans and models, conducting traffic simulation analyses to ensure designs are structurally sound and meet safety standards, communicating with lots of clients, or managing timelines to ensure projects are completed on schedule and within budget (e.g. constructing a metro line)!

So, why did I choose civil engineering over architecture or urban planning? For me, it came down to a love of problem-solving and a desire to have a tangible impact on my community. While architecture and urban planning certainly have their own unique contributions to city-building, I was drawn to the hands-on, technical nature of civil engineering. I wanted to be trained to calculate, measure, analyze and develop solutions for cities and then see them constructed in real life. Civil engineers also don’t sit in front of their computers all day; they also conduct a lot of site visits, attend conferences and do a ton of communication with other engineers, architects, urban planners and construction professionals, collaborating to bring their designs to life.

Of course, that’s not to say that civil engineering is the right path for everyone interested in city-building. Architecture and urban planning offer different but equally valuable perspectives and skill sets. Architecture is all about design and aesthetics, creating beautiful and functional spaces that enhance our lives. Urban planning, on the other hand, takes a broader view of the built environment, considering how different structures and systems fit together to create a functional and livable city. In fact, I wish my civil engineering degree provided more perspectives on concepts from architecture and urban planning; throughout my studies, I find I am focusing on minute details of structural design rather the context-specific participatory design and environmental justice expertise that architects and urban planners possess.

Although I don’t have much professional experience in civil engineering beyond an internship in the public transit industry, I can speak to my academic experience thus far. Currently, I am enrolled in a five-year program that includes six four-month co-op placements. I am now in my second year and have completed two co-op placements. Civil Engineering is a vast field, and my university offers four specializations (similar to concentrations in other universities): Water Resources, Transportation, Structural, and Geotechnical. Each specialization requires a different set of skills and knowledge, but they all share a common foundation in civil engineering principles. The Water Resources specialization focuses on designing and managing water systems, including drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater management. The Transportation specialization deals with designing and managing transportation systems, such as highways, public transit, and airports. The Structural specialization focuses on designing and analyzing structures such as buildings, bridges, and tunnels. Finally, the Geotechnical specialization involves designing and managing earth structures such as foundations, slopes, and retaining walls. Out of these four, I am particularly drawn to the Transportation Engineering specialization, specifically public transport (one thing my friends know about me is that I’m a HUGE transit/trains nerd).

Photo by Josh Wilburne on Unsplash

When it comes to my classes and workload, I’m currently tackling subjects like structural analysis, transportation engineering, geotechnical engineering, hydrology, environmental engineering, and project management. Along with those, there are some basic engineering courses that we need to take, like statistics, computer science (using MATLAB), and a course that covers CAD design, technical writing, and surveying (a skill you definitely need for surveying construction sites). To be honest, the coursework can be tough — we’ve got 5–6 classes per term, and it’s like having a full-time job just keeping up with lectures, assignments, labs, and group projects. But since my cohort is pretty small (around 100 students), we all help each other out and have become good friends after surviving some of the toughest parts of the semester together. Despite the challenges, I’m finding civil engineering to be really rewarding. I wanted to study something that would push me and help me develop my engineering and problem-solving skills, and my program has definitely done that!

While I firmly believe that the biggest motivator to become a civil engineer should be rooted in a desire to make a positive impact on cities and their communities, this career path is also very stable and lucrative and opens up a ton of doors for further education and career options. You could combine it with urban planning or architecture by pursuing a graduate degree or try your hand at something totally different like urban tech, starting a nonprofit, or infrastructure management consulting. The possibilities are pretty endless!

To sum up, civil engineering is a vast and dynamic field that plays a critical role in shaping our built environment. It offers a rewarding career path for those interested in making a tangible impact on their communities and solving complex problems. But whether you choose civil engineering, architecture, urban planning, or another field entirely, what matters most is your passion for creating positive change in our cities. If you don’t know where to start, consider getting involved with Urban Minds! We have a ton of city-building conferences and opportunities for high school students along with volunteer opportunities for both students and professionals. Let me know if you have any questions about civil engineering or Urban Minds by contacting me at adrianaceric@urbanminds.co!

Adriana Ceric is a Growth Coordinator at Urban Minds.

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