Adolescente sosteniendo casco para supervisar proyecto ingeniería
Civil engineering

How to Turn a Dream Into a Thriving International Engineering Career

21 of June of 2024

I grew up around construction. My uncle had a construction company, and my father often undertook projects around the house, from minor changes like painting a room to more extensive endeavors like rearranging the walls. He even built our family home before I was born. Construction was always around me, and I enjoyed being involved — it was a good chance for father-daughter time, and I reveled in having a project to pursue.

I became very strong in math, physics, and science as I got older. When I was 13, I saw an advertisement for AGH University of Science and Technology in Poland, and it became my absolute dream to study structural engineering there.

Following the dream

Instead of attending a normal high school, I decided to attend a one-year technical school that offered specialized subjects, such as structural mechanics, basic design, and architecture.

When I applied, all my teachers were against the idea. They even contacted my mother to advise her against letting me go. Fortunately, my parents were very supportive, and I was determined to follow my ambition.

The construction school required us to learn technical drawing by hand instead of CAD or other software. I remember spending hours designing a detached house, drawing it in pencil, and finalizing it in ink. You had to redo the whole drawing if you got a single line wrong. My mother would watch me sitting at the table for hours; she couldn’t believe how dedicated I was, even as a teenager.

At that age, I was very focused on academics and earned the highest grades. Thanks to that, I had the opportunity to participate in events like the Construction Olympics and various national competitions in Poland.

During this time, I had a strange experience on one of my summer placements on a construction site. The first day, the company owner took all the boys to the site and told me and the other girl in the group to wait in his office. When he finally arrived, he gave us both a bucket and a cloth and asked us to wash the windows.

We refused, and he responded by tasking us with the most physically demanding jobs on-site, such as shoveling or hammering. It was as if he wanted us to prove we could do the work — it was clear he didn’t truly understand the idea of women in construction.

Other times, companies would give us girls the least physically demanding jobs, which was not ideal either. The best experiences were at companies that treated each person as an individual, assigning work based on each person’s abilities instead of their gender.

When I was 19, I passed my technical exam and earned my technician degree, which allowed me to start working in construction. However, I aimed to earn a higher qualification.

I was accepted at all three universities I applied to and decided to attend the one I had dreamt about since the age of 13 — which was also the one farthest away. All my friends went to universities closer to my hometown, but I moved to Krakow, on the other side of the country, to live my dream.

I had no idea how quickly my career would take me even farther from home.

Starting a new chapter overseas

My plan was to get my bachelor’s degree in 3.5 years, followed by my master’s in 1.5 years, studying Monday through Friday. I completed summer placements at a few different companies, and the summer after my third year working at Budimex, they, offered me a real job when the summer was over.

Eager to gain more experience, I began working on-site part-time while continuing my studies. I enjoyed it so much that upon finishing my bachelor’s degree, I changed my plan: I would work full-time and study for my master’s degree on the weekends.

After less than six months working full-time, I learned about a project that would be taking place in London. My team encouraged me to apply, but I was reluctant to consider the possibility.

As time passed, I heard more and more about the project, and different colleagues and managers kept insisting I would be a perfect candidate. Eventually, I decided it was worth a shot.

When my application was accepted, I still had one year of university remaining. However, classes had moved online due to the pandemic, so it was perfect timing. By a strange stroke of fate, the pandemic enabled me to move to the UK while earning my master’s degree in Poland.

In London, I was hired as a site civil engineer on the Thames Tideway Tunnel project. After less than four years working on the project, I’ve been promoted twice, first becoming a section engineer, then moving into my current role as a sub-agent. It’s been an incredible experience so far.

Reflecting on women in engineering

There are many campaigns about diversity and inclusion in the context of International Women in Engineering Day. Most people are focused on the fact that we don’t have enough women in construction. They say we still need to improve and be more inclusive.

I still see some differences in the sector, even between some countries. This happens to all jobs and fields; there are some countries that are ahead of others in terms of inclusion and diversity. The good thing is that those who are ahead can always pave the way for other places to follow. In my experience working as an engineer in the UK, I think that we’re already in a very good place here in the UK.

The treatment of women on construction sites in the UK is a stark contrast to other places. Sometimes, I’ve found myself in situations where my instructions were only acknowledged after my male colleague confirmed them. However, I’ve never encountered such a scenario in the UK; I’ve always been treated with respect and equality here.

I think countries like the UK are a bit more progressive and open-minded. In construction, you can see this in everything from digitalization and the use of technologies to sustainability and the focus on the environment to inclusivity and respect for women’s authority.

So, it’s essential to recognize and celebrate the progress women in engineering have made in countries like the UK.

While it’s important to acknowledge progress, there’s always room for improvement. I’m personally driven to see more women engineers on-site. We have a significant number of women in construction, but they’re often more involved in planning or quality functions. It’s time to see more women taking an active role on-site.

For girls and women with passion for engineering and other STEM careers, my advice is simple: take that first step! It’s natural to feel apprehensive, but remember, the only way to know if it’s right for you is to give it a try.

It can be intimidating to work in a heavily male-dominated environment, but it doesn’t matter when you’re on a good team. The team will welcome you, support you, and help you grow.

 Don’t let anyone get in your way when you know what you want to do.

An international calling

I have found engineering to be very international; everyone needs engineers.

Not only has my profession brought me to the UK, but it has also allowed me to travel to India for a volunteering opportunity I visited for two weeks to help with the design stage of a social infrastructure project to provide 10 communities with access to potable drinking water.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating which path to pursue next. I’ve surpassed all my academic and professional goals I set when I was 13: I’m now a chartered civil engineer in Poland and the UK. I’m working on a significant infrastructure project in a European capital while steadily advancing in my career.

Of course, after so many years of combining work and study, once I finished my degrees and certifications, it wasn’t long before I felt the urge to learn something new.

I thought, “I can speak three languages” — Polish, English, and Spanish — perhaps it is time to learn a fourth. And that is how I started taking Mandarin classes.

That should keep me busy as I dream about what to build next.


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