UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If you asked Rowland Smith where he got his start in civil engineering, his answer would be rather unexpected — snow forts. From a young age, Smith knew he loved design and problem-solving, but he didn’t know this passion would translate into a highly successful academic and professional career at Penn State.
For many, a major snowstorm is seen as a drag, but for Smith and his friends, it meant one thing: It was time to build. As a teenager, Smith could spend hours in his backyard crafting elaborate snow forts. What seemed like just a hobby, took a more serious turn as he entered high school. With more math and science skills under his belt, Smith began doing estimates on weights, volumes and durations to create the massive forts that garnered local fame.
“I realized I really enjoyed the process of leading and completing projects,” Smith said. “I also worked a few summers as a laborer where I got some real hands-on experience and had my first taste of the pace and character of a real construction project.”
By his senior year of high school, it was clear to Smith that he wanted to major in engineering, the only question was where. He began his search by looking at the U.S. News and World Report rankings for top engineering undergraduate programs and narrowed his choices down to the top 25 schools. Among them was Penn State.
“Being from Pittsburgh, I knew a lot of Penn State alumni, and I held most of those people in high regard,” Smith said. “My sister also went to Penn State, so it seemed like the right fit.”
The transition from high school to college wasn’t easy for Smith at first. Classes were large, and he found the coursework especially intense. He was certainly challenged, but at the start of his junior year, things began to turn around.
After completing all his prerequisites and officially declaring himself a civil engineering major, his class sizes began to shrink. Smith got to know his professors on a more personal level and found it easier to make friends with his peers. He joined the Penn State chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers and was a member of a committee for the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. While flourishing in the classroom, Smith also began to expand his career experience.
Smith attended the Penn State career fair in his sophomore year, where he met with Clayco, a design-build company that had plans to take over the renovations of East Halls, a student housing complex on the University Park campus.
“I originally told them I was interested in working at the East Halls project, but they told me work would not likely begin for another year. Instead, they had some projects near me in Pittsburgh that were currently ongoing,” Smith said. “I was able to intern at those projects in the summer of 2015 before interning at East Halls in the summer of 2016.”
Smith describes his experience at Clayco as a “baptism by fire.” Being selected to work at the East Halls renovation was not only challenging but also a great learning experience. At the conclusion of his internship in the summer of 2016, Smith was offered a position to join Clayco full time. He accepted the position with the intention of finishing school in May 2017.
Although he had already accepted a job, Smith was still open to learning about other opportunities. It was at the graduate school fair that he became interested in the one-year Master of Engineering program at Penn State. He had previously heard about the program from other students, but after speaking with the professors at the fair, he realized it was the most efficient way for him to achieve a master’s degree.
“Since I had already accepted the job offer with Clayco, I had to make sure they were OK with me pursuing this degree before I committed to the program,” Smith said.
“They have been so supportive throughout the whole process,” he said. “I am happy to be where I am right now.”
Smith graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in May 2017 and began pursuing his master’s degree that fall, while still working full time for Clayco. The experience he’s gained while working on the East Halls project has proved invaluable.
“It has made such a positive impact on my professional life, and I am looking forward to the future working with them,” he said.
Smith plans to continue working at Clayco throughout his graduate degree. Upon completion of his degree, he anticipates staying at the East Halls project for phase 2A, which will conclude in August 2020. After the project is completed, he hopes to obtain his professional engineer license.