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Sarah Gerarden
June 14, 2022

Steps to success in CEM: Gerarden reflects on her path from UW to the construction industry

Written By: Amanda Thuss


When Sarah Gerarden first came to UW-Madison, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to focus on as an engineer. Research currently underway in the UW-Madison Civil and Environmental Engineering Department spans eight areas of emphasis from construction engineering and management to geological engineering, transportation engineering, water resources, and beyond, giving students the opportunity to explore the possibilities and develop their skills in the area that interests them.

As her time on campus progressed, classes in environmental and structural engineering led her to rule out both areas of emphasis and helped her determine that design engineering wasn’t the right fit for her. With a natural talent for planning and managing work and an interest in building infrastructure, the Construction Engineering and Management (CEM) program caught her attention, and the rest is history. 

Sarah found her home in the CEM program and went on to graduate in the fall of 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with an emphasis in CEM and a certificate in technical communications. On the heels of her 6-month full time post-graduation work anniversary, Sarah reflects on the campus and internship experiences that helped launch her career and shares what she’s up to now.

Industry exposure and curriculum lays foundation for career success

One of the most impactful decisions that I made as an undergraduate student in civil and environmental Engineering at UW-Madison was enrolling in the construction engineering and management (CEM) program, and I would encourage others to do the same. The idea of helping to construct and build infrastructure was more exciting to me than designing it, and CEM put me in a position to be able to do that. 

This program advanced my understanding of construction through courses like Building Information Systems (CEE 392) and Legal Aspects of Construction (CEE 491). I also enjoyed learning from industry experts via guest lectures and courses taught by working professionals, such as Electrical Systems for Construction (CEE 496) and Special Topics in Construction Engineering and Management (CEE 669). Additionally, courses such as Senior Capstone Design (CEE 578) and the aforementioned CEE 496 were instrumental in building my confidence and familiarity with practical engineering skills in a lower-stakes environment while also introducing open-ended problems. 

This combination of curriculum and real-world industry exposure equipped me with a skillset that is in demand in the industry, and I believe it provided me with a competitive advantage in my career. 

Building expertise through internships

During my tenure in the CEM program, I was fortunate to participate in three internship experiences that built upon and further developed the skills I was taught at UW-Madison. During my first internship in the spring of 2019, I worked with the Integrated Facilities Planning (IFP) team at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. In this role, I helped to develop a domestic exterior paint and façade strategy to identify and specify recurring work within the annual IFP program. To find possible solutions, I parsed through historical data for sequential trends, spoke to subject matter experts and key partners, and initiated a facade inventory. Towards the end of my internship, I made a final recommendation that I presented to my team. I was also chosen as one of five interns to present my project to VPs and executives. I was proud to be chosen for that presentation and it made me feel that my work was truly valuable to the company, and it was. This achievement recognized my ability to investigate solutions and make recommendations, while also building my public speaking skills and confidence in presenting technical information.

Sarah on the job during her internship with the IFP team at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Continuing into the fall of 2019, I stayed with the Walt Disney World’s Facility Asset Management team as a field representative intern on the Disney’s Art of Animation Resort rehabilitation project where I provided general support for unit costing and punch-list work. Through this internship, I became more comfortable on construction sites, and I enjoyed seeing the execution of the work as well as the planning that went into it.

My last internship experience was with Michels Corporation’s Pipe Services Division – Geopolymer and Large Special Projects Group as a project management intern. It was both a challenge and a reward as I applied the techniques for project control that I learned in the CEM program on two sewage pipe rehabilitation projects in Owensboro, Kentucky and Dorchester, Massachusetts. For these projects, I generated requests for information (RFIs), composed required submittals, assisted with financial and project tracking, updated the project schedule, and much more. I gained skills such as being assertive and taking action through this internship from both the challenges and achievements that I experienced.

My internships offered a natural progression, with each one becoming more closely aligned with my future career and I am lucky for that. I learned about my likes and dislikes, and that the team you work with makes an incredible difference. 

Professional development on the job

Currently, I am a field engineer for Mass Electric Construction Transportation (MEC), which is a subsidiary of Kiewit, and I am working on the Lynnwood Link Expansion for the light rail system in Seattle, WA. I have been working on pull calculations for installing the cable and devices for the signals with my superintendent. The signals essentially tell the light rail vehicle when to stop or go. I have also been working on submittals and transmittals, material receiving, and general training. That is a really great thing about Kiewit, there is so much training. I also feel free to ask questions when ever necessary.

As my workload picks up, I will be responsible for tracing and billing work, tracking install progress, and being in the field more. Since starting here, I have become more confident in my skills and abilities as I learn electrical lingo and adapt to the new environment. I will also be serving as a peer advisor for an intern soon, and I am excited to offer my support. When I arrived to my first day in January 2022, I was initially really nervous. However, I have quickly adapted to the role and thoroughly enjoy it so far.

Guiding the next gen of Badger engineers

Reflecting on my time in the CEM program, and at UW-Madison as a whole, I encourage students to pursue opportunities offered beyond the classroom. Organizations like the Construction Club were a source of new friends, academic support, and professional development. I would also advise students to seek internships and not be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions. Employers understand that you are new to the industry and generally want to help you grow. You do not grow by being comfortable and being uncomfortable is sometimes the best way to learn. Also, don’t be discouraged by rejections or small failures. There is something out there for everyone with time and ambition.