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Northeastern senior wins award as national engineering Co-op Student of the Year

02/11/16 - BOSTON, MA. - Kelly O'Connell, E'16 poses for a portrait on Feb. 1, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

If experiential learning, with co-op at its center, characterizes Northeastern, Kelly O’Connell, E’16, characterizes co-op.

That was apparent on Wednesday, when O’Connell received the 2015-2016 Co-op Student of the Year award from the Cooperative and Experiential Education Division of the American Society of Engineering Education. The award is given annually to just one outstanding student nationwide. The last time a Northeastern student won it was in 1997.

“As a co-op student, Kelly knocks it out of the park,” says O’Connell’s co-op advisor, Daniel Saulnier, associate co-op coordinator for civil and environmental engineering, who nominated her for the prize. “You put an opportunity in front of her and she flies. Kelly has been a role model for other students throughout her time here: on co-op, in the classroom, and as a volunteer helping manage construction of a water-distribution system for villagers in Uganda.”

From student to professional

O’Connell’s co-ops have served as the cornerstone of her Northeastern experience, forging links between her professional work, her academics, and her leadership roles in student groups such as the Northeastern chapter of Engineers Without Borders, where she served as president for the 2014-2015 school year.

In that position, she led a 14-member executive board and oversaw 60 students in activities ranging from fundraising to designing and implementing engineering solutions in developing countries. Perhaps her most remarkable accomplishment, notes Saulnier, was expanding the chapter’s reach from two service projects to three, adding construction of a water-distribution system in Panama to those already underway in Honduras and Uganda. “The effort and hours that Kelly put into this role were astounding,” he says.

O’Connell credits Northeastern with helping to nurture that commitment. “Sustainable international development became a passion of mine in college,” says O’Connell, who is majoring in civil engineering with a minor in mechanical engineering. She chose the minor to open the door to co-ops focusing on technologies that improve energy efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint. “My involvement in EWB and my co-ops have allowed me to grow from an engineering student into a professional engineer,” she says.

Kelly O’Connell, E’16, came to college with interests in environmental issues and climate change. Today she credits Northeastern’s co-op program, backed by rigorous engineering courses, with guiding her toward her career goals. She was named the national engineering co-op student of the year in February 2016.

Photo by Craig Gunn

Co-ops as roadmap

O’Connell’s three co-ops provided the roadmap for that growth.

At her first one, Barletta Engineering Corp., a general contractor in Canton, Massachusetts, she acquired technical skills—how to solicit bids from and negotiate with subcontractors—as well as work-life lessons. “You learn how to respect your superiors and conduct yourself as an adult,” says O’Connell. “Northeastern prepares you for that. You are capable of functioning on your own much faster because you start working at a real job as early as your sophomore year.”

My involvement in EWB and my co-ops have allowed me to grow from an engineering student into a professional engineer.
— Kelly O’Connell, E’16

The Barletta experience also helped her refine what she wanted to pursue next: environmental engineering, a longstanding interest. She took a co-op position as a water-resources consultant for Environmental Partners Group, in Quincy, Massachusetts, where she mastered surveying and computer-aided design, taking stock of existing water mains and designing new, replacement ones for municipal clients.

“A lot was expected of me,” says O’Connell, who reported to multiple supervisors. Balancing competing demands and collating reams of data about site characteristics—location of manholes, drains, catch basins, trees, even mailboxes—forced her to hone both her time- and project-management skills.

Step-by-step guidance

Upon leaving Barletta, O’Connell was closer to her career aspirations but not quite there. What she needed, she realized, were more mechanical engineering credits under her belt. So she zeroed in on mechanical engineering courses such as thermodynamics before her final co-op, and ultimately landed a job at Energy and Resource Solutions, an energy-efficiency consultancy in North Andover, Massachusetts.

She was the first-ever co-op student at the firm. Her projects included working with the utility company National Grid to review builders’ adoption of the company’s incentive programs, with a concentration on energy-efficient lighting systems.

Northeastern’s unique integration of academics and practical experience, along with the possibility of having two co-op advisors—one in her major and one in her minor—guided her, one step at a time, through the path that led to her career goals, O’Connell says.

She’s reaching them sooner than she thought. Come spring, when she graduates, she will start as a full-time project engineer at the firm. “ERS is the perfect place for me,” says O’Connell. “The firm is forward-thinking concerning energy and going green, and the culture is fun, casual, and upbeat.”

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