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Elevating excellence at CME’s 2014 CEPAC Awards

Less financial stress. More time to study, pursue internships and participate in professional student organizations. For some undergraduate students in the Department of Civil and Materials Engineering, having these small luxuries can either be the key or a hurdle to their academic success. Recognizing that financial demands could impact student performance, CME’s Civil Engineering Professional Advisory Council (CEPAC) reached out to their network—establishing scholarships to assist students who demonstrated both financial need and academic excellence.

In his opening remarks for the 2014 CEPAC Awards, the Council’s Chairman Kenneth E. Nelson, P.E., delved into the history of CME and CEPAC’s partnership, talking about how the Department and Council have worked together diligently over the years to identify and resolve some of the challenges CME students face.

CEPAC was established in 2000, and made up of professional practitioners and civil engineering faculty members. These experts came together to enhance undergraduate education in the CME Department. The working professionals in industry enthusiastically collaborated with CME faculty, providing immediate solutions in the form of new scholarships, current and emerging industry trends to improve curricula, volunteering, teaching and acting as counselors to make sure CME graduates left UIC fully equipped to take on professions as civil engineers.

The formal CEPAC Awards event began in 2009, when CEPAC organized an evening to celebrate the scholarship recipients and their benefactors—
giving each a chance to meet each other and see the fruits of their labor.

What started off as a modest 16 scholarships and recipients in 2009 has now grown to 22 scholarships and 39 recipients in 2014—with several scholars winning multiple awards. As the program has grown over the years, so has the attendance of UIC alumni returning to present awards on behalf of their companies—returning to their roots and engaging with the Department’s next generation of civil engineers.

As many UIC alumni presenters introduced their awards, they each added a bit of personal history that tied them to UIC, sharing cheerful anecdotes about the school and long-gone professors, as well as what it meant to them to present their awards.

Another exceptional example is Dr. Christopher B. Burke, CEPAC Member, CME’s Professor of Practice, and creator of two awards: The Christopher B. and Susan S. Burke Graduate Student Scholarship Award, and the Rosemary Burke Scholarship. While presenting the second scholarship to Cristian X. Vargas*, (who would go on to win two additional awards that evening), Dr. Burke emphasized the importance of fostering academic excellence, to the attendees, and to the students in particular, the importance of being well-rounded engineers.

“When I first arrived at CME, it was to interview for a position in the department,” said CME’s Interim Department Head Dr. Karl Rockne, introducing the Professor Robert H. Bryant Scholarship. “One of the most unforgettable people I interviewed with? Professor Thomas Ting, who turned out to be an incredible foodie.” Dr. Ting, upon learning of Dr. Rockne’s postdoctoral work in New Jersey, proceeded to list and recommend in great detail, several restaurants and stores that Dr, Rockne should try immediately. Several audience members who had either worked with or been a student of the professor, nodded enthusiastically, exchanging glances and smiles. After the reception, they would cluster together and share their own UIC stories of life as an engineering student, the interesting faculty, and of course, their interactions with the emeritus professor.

Before she presented her scholarship, Dr. Nancy Anderson Holmes took the stage with Ken Nelson and treated the audience to a little history of UIC and the Professor Edward H. Coe Scholarship. Dr. Holmes, a triple-degree holder from UIC, was a member of the first UIC College of Engineering class, and its only woman graduate. Professor Edward H. Coe was a colonel in charge of an engineering corps in World War II, a U.S. Army veteran, and a civil engineering professor at UIC’s original Navy Pier location. As a student of this professor, Dr. Holmes provided a small window in time about the pioneer faculty of UIC engineering. Transitioning seamlessly from UIC history to her personal history, Dr. Holmes talked about the inspiration behind the Nancy Anderson Holmes scholarship—her aunt—who pursued an engineering doctorate, but was denied the degree because of her gender. In honor of her aunt, Dr. Holmes established the Nancy Anderson Holmes scholarship in 2006 to benefit UIC civil engineering students.

After all the awards were presented, students Kent A. Andrews, Kimberly A. White, Cristian X. Vargas and Adam M. Dasoqi asked to say a few words to the audience.

“Thanks to the CEPAC Scholarship, I have more time to spend on my studies, and to be at home with my wife and newborn instead of working at a part-time job. Having this time also allows me to focus on my future goals as a civil engineer” said Andrews, who plans to do civil engineering infrastructure work in under-served communities across Asia.

“What these scholarships allow me to do is participate, in everything at school,” said Vargas, who won three separate awards this year. The path to this point was the culmination of a long and difficult road to CME. After being rejected to the program the first time he applied in 2007, Vargas focused on his grades in a community college, trying again in 2010. “I applied again, and I was rejected, once again, but I never gave up the entire time, and focused on getting myself here.” Today, Vargas’ dedication has earned him an excellent academic record and the ability to participate—serving as outreach director for SHPE (the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers), where he promotes the society’s vision of encouraging more students into STEM. Vargas is also a member of the ASCE Student Chapter at UIC. His team, which worked on the Steel Bridge Competition took third place, which qualifies them for nationals.

White, a self-described wanderer through several programs at UIC, starting off as an undeclared liberal arts major, spending years exploring other options but finally finding her home in CME. “I am very, very thankful for this award [the Clark Dietz Scholarship],” she said, “it’s a stressful time right now, around midterms, and this is such a good nudge to keep going.” Although White had no
engineering experience, or engineers in her family to help her navigate, she said the CME, and now CEPAC have provided excellent support and guidance so she can pursue a career in structural engineering.

“As all of you know, studying engineering takes lot of time and effort,” said Dasoqi, who won the T.Y Lin International’s Engineering Merit Scholarship. “It feels good to be rewarded, too but it feels even better to know I also have the support of the faculty, alumni, donors and CEPAC—thank you all.”

To learn more about CEPAC or to participate in the Council, please contact us at for more information.

November 2014