March 24, 2022

Sierra engineers her future through Kiewit Scholars Program

Felicity Sierra, freshman mechanical engineering major, listens to a career panel in the Kiewit Scholars Program.
Craig Chandler | University Communication

Craig Chandler | University Communication
Felicity Sierra, freshman mechanical engineering major, listens to a career panel in the Kiewit Scholars Program.

Felicity Sierra is charting her own path in engineering through the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Kiewit Scholars Program.

Sierra, a freshman mechanical engineering major from Chicago, was one of 10 students chosen for the program’s inaugural cohort last fall. The program is a collaboration between the College of Engineering and Kiewit Corporation that aims to provide a select cohort of engineering students with leadership and career development opportunities throughout their undergraduate experience.

The program selects students based on previous academic and leadership achievements, interest in the engineering field and dedication to the growth of themselves and others. More than 320 students applied for the first cohort, and select students were invited to interview before the 10 scholars were chosen.

Sierra said she applied because the program sent her a personal invitation and because she was looking for a college program that would provide her with the tools and scholarship support necessary to achieve her dreams in engineering.

“Opening (my acceptance), I ended up crying honestly because there were so many times where I did have interviews and potential big scholarships that I didn’t get,” Sierra said. “And so this one, it was like if I do get it, it’s literally going to change my life.”

In the program, Sierra takes a one-credit class every semester with her fellow scholars where they learn professional skills, such as resume building and job interviewing, and engage with employee panels from Kiewit. The company offers a custom internship experience, which she will work in this summer at one of Kiewit’s national locations. She will also receive several other benefits, such as immersive learning trips, industry mentorship and connections, a full-tuition scholarship with additional financial support, and leadership development opportunities.

Sierra plans to use the resources and internship opportunities in the program to further explore her future in engineering. She said she’s always been a kinesthetic learner and wants to find the perfect career that balances her passions for engineering and technology in a hands-on environment. She’s interested in working as a project manager with artificial intelligence because of the endless opportunities for innovation the field offers.

Sierra landed on this specific career path, as well as her mechanical engineering major, due to her in-depth exposure to engineering in the Kiewit program and prior experiences in STEM. At her high school, she was a member of an engineering honors program, vice president of a STEM club and participated in the Summer Immersion Program for Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit that works to close the gender gap in technology careers. On top of these involvements, she’s taken a plethora of courses in calculus, chemistry, coding and more, and has thoroughly applied herself in all of them to learn what avenues in STEM she likes.

“It was a learning process to go from chemical engineering to computer science to computer engineering to mechanical engineering now,” Sierra said. “Each experience helped me get to know myself better.”

Immersive experiences in the program have especially helped Sierra work toward finding her passion. She said visiting construction worksites, such as the Riverfront area in Omaha, have given her the hands-on experience she’s been looking for. On visits like these, Sierra also gets to strengthen her relationships with some of Kiewit’s top executives, which she says has been invaluable.

“It’s been a great experience getting to be on a personal level with executives in the chain of leadership,” Sierra said. “It’s kind of like talking to a mentor, and that’s been a big plus getting to know them more.”

Besides gaining hands-on learning in the engineering world, Sierra has strengthened her leadership skills through the program. She attended a leadership retreat last fall with her cohort and has since focused on being more open-minded and communicative. These leadership trainings, too, have influenced her to seek personal growth in addition to academic growth.

“Felicity is a people person,” said Bonnie Shuda, director of engineering scholar programs, “and her leadership qualities hinge upon her offering up space for others to share their stories and struggles when they need to be heard and leading them in an individualized way that can support them best.”

Sierra said she feels especially called to succeed as none of her family members have been involved in engineering or have had access to the educational opportunities that she has now. But beyond her family, she finds most of her motivation from wanting to make her younger self proud. It’s a lesson she said she’s learned since joining the program, that one must want the best for themselves and work for it every day.

“If you live up to anyone else’s expectations, you’re not staying true to yourself,” Sierra said. “You’re not sticking to your passion. And you should do something you love because you love it.”

As her freshman year winds down, Sierra has her eyes on several opportunities for the next few years of college and beyond. She plans to get more involved with the university as a whole in registered student organizations, volunteer in the Lincoln community and intern for Kiewit and possibly a couple other firms.

“Now I kind of know what I want to do in the future,” Sierra said. “I feel prepared and more comforted in the fact that I have a plan and have a support system in Kiewit. I feel like I’ve grown more so as a person than just a student.”