Dear Montecito: Meredith Urschel
It’s not every day you open your email to find that the young woman who used to sell your family Girl Scout Cookies is now a grown adult in charge of building the new Air Force One Hangar. Enter Meredith Urschel, daughter of Carissa Smith and Ted Urschel, a Cornell alum and concrete enthusiast.
Before I read Meredith’s letter, you would have been hard pressed to catch my interest in a conversation about civil engineering, let alone concrete. But I found myself strangely charmed by Meredith’s story. She paints the picture of a fascination that started with increasingly intricate Lego structures and grew into a love for material science and civil engineering. And you know what? Even to someone whose own scientific career is relegated to the organic, this interest began to make sense. I think that, like me, you’ll be able to appreciate the incredible work Ms Urschel is doing in her field but also the keyhole of understanding she shares with us from the world of concrete.
It’s been a while. I’m living in D.C. now, managing the construction of the new Air Force One Hangar at a Clark Construction subsidiary, Clark Concrete. I miss the sunny West Coast, but the East Coast is treating me well.
A little about my background… My family moved to Montecito from the San Francisco area just in time for me to start kindergarten at Montecito Union School in 2002. I attended junior high at Santa Barbara Junior High School and then high school at Dos Pueblos. When I moved across the country five years ago to attend Cornell University, I had no idea whether or when I’d be back living in California, but I was prepared to start that adventure and excited to see what the world had in store for me.
Buildings have always inspired me. Growing up in Montecito, I had a fascination with the Spanish style home. How could I not? Santa Barbara architecture is a gem. I’ve always been intrigued by skyscrapers, too. Driving through L.A. and San Francisco, seeing the tall buildings on the horizon was mesmerizing. But this passion didn’t start with skyscrapers, it started with Legos. I’d play with my Duplex Legos for hours. Eventually, I graduated to building more complicated sets and would expand on my inventions or, sometimes, connect several sets together. This, combined with playing the cello from third grade onwards, marked creativity in my childhood. Music helped to get the creative juices flowing, taught me persistence, and required my brain to think critically and mathematically. I didn’t necessarily connect that to a hard sciences line of thinking, though, until high school when I joined the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy. The program exposed me to my creative potential. I learned how to program, design using computer software, and use machines to build the objects I’d designed. While programming didn’t really stick, design interested me a lot.
I started at Cornell in the engineering college, but I was unsure about my specific path. Early on in freshman year, I applied to a civil engineering bridge building project team and, through its collaborative, hands-on student design and machining process, I quickly realized that I loved to create and build structures. I also learned formulae and software that I wouldn’t utilize until later on in my studies. This project team, along with a very interesting introductory course I was taking called Modern Structures, helped inform my choice to become a civil engineering major. I became very involved within the “CivE” community, specifically within the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE. I was the social chair one year, then the president the next. My junior year, I took a leap of faith and decided to take concrete design, which is the most intense design course offered within civil engineering. Long story short, I fell in love with concrete. My professor was so inspirational and passionate about concrete that it was honestly difficult not to develop a liking of the material. I ended up taking advanced concrete design that next semester, then TA’d both courses the following year and took a concrete materials class senior spring.
I had a few internships that helped to confirm that I wanted to work in the civil engineering sphere. My freshman summer, I worked for a commercial construction company in San Francisco. We built a large biotech campus, but I worked mostly on the campus’ concrete parking garage. My sophomore summer, I worked for a residential construction company that builds homes in Atherton and Menlo Park. My junior summer, I switched it up and interned for a structural design firm in New York City. Because of this broad set of experiences, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do after graduation. I was still ASCE’s president when we planned the Clark Construction Company career event during their fall Career Fair weekend. That event led to interviews with Clark, and I was eventually hired! I found out shortly after graduation that I had been placed in Clark’s self-perform concrete division, Clark Concrete. Now, I’m building the new Air Force One Hangar on Joint Base Andrews, and I absolutely love what I do. I’ve learned so much in the past year. Being an integral part of such an amazing, historical, lasting project has been really special, especially because I’ve seen our site transition from dirt to a semi-finished product.
Interviewers used to ask me why I chose to be a civil engineer. The short answer is this – I think I’ve always had an idea, even if I didn’t know what that line of work was called. I’ve always liked to design and build things. Now I have the chance to see a finished product and say: “hey… I did that!” I even used to tell my dad that I would build an entire community underwater to fix our environmental problems. While that may have been a tad ambitious, this attitude has very much influenced my budding career.
P.S. Feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com if you’d like to chat about Cornell, Clark, or the civil engineering world.