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An Undergraduate Journey: Where Civil Engineering Theory Meets Reality

In an era where converting years of academic theory into real life skills is priceless, the part an undergraduate placement plays in respect to the millennial student’s university journey is immeasurable. Today – thanks to the range of placement programs on offer – it’s highly unlikely a university student will graduate without any industry experience and exposure under their belt. In the civil engineering industry, Civilex continues its strong relationship with Swinburne University and offers undergraduate placements to civil engineering students, providing endless opportunities to weave their knowledge into gold.

Swinburne University undergraduates Lee Tesaluna and Alex Schmidt have recently completed an undergraduate placement with Civilex. Lee started as a placement student but chose to take time away from his university degree to work full-time with Civilex. He plans to return to Swinburne for his final year in 2019. Meanwhile, Alex has completed his tertiary study and is pleased to have secured a Graduate Engineering role at Civilex starting next year. Unfortunately, we can’t chat with Alex as he’s currently traversing around Europe, aiming to visit as many music festivals as possible!

Lee has just returned from a family visit to New York and caught up with me recently to chat all things civil engineering, and his experience as a Civilex Undergraduate Site Engineer.

Civilex undergraduate civil engineering students

Civilex Undergraduate Civil Engineering Students Alex Schmidt (left) and Lee Tesaluna (right)

Lee’s Journey to Civil Engineering
Lee comes from a family of nurses: his parents are both nurses, and so too are his aunts and uncles on his father’s and mother’s sides of the family. Then there’s Occupational Therapist in the mix too. Growing up, Lee rebelled against this entrenched family discipline and wanted to do something different. Whatever that might be. Inspiration came on a family vacation to New York when he visited another aunt and uncle – who were not nurses – but rather trained as civil engineers working in Toronto.

Lee was just 11 years old when his worldview changed. It came from a simple question – what do you do? “I recall them telling me the work we do makes things happen.” And Lee was hooked. Lee shares that the engineering side of the family spoke about building a bridge in the Philippines. “It wasn’t a special bridge or anything, but they told me it had all the names of the senior engineers inscribed on a plaque attached to that bridge. 11-year old me thought that was just so cool.” In fact, it had such a profound impact that Lee decided he wanted to do that too. And so, the drive to become a civil engineer was born.

That drive was cemented when in Year 10 Lee really stepped out of the medical arena that most of his family were so familiar in. “I took my work experience at a nursing home and quickly realised the nursing profession was definitely not for me,” Lee says. He was just okay at maths, better at physics, but terrible at chemistry. “I was really rebelling against anything nursing related…including chemistry!”

University Life
Lee is currently one year away from graduating with a Bachelor in Engineering (Civil) (Honours) at Swinburne University. He has taken time away from the books to work full time with Civilex after successfully being offered an undergraduate placement with the company and will return to Swinburne in 2019 to complete his degree.

His favourite subjects at university centre around report writing, group projects, and presentations. He also prefers management subjects such as Engineering Management, Civil Engineering Project, and Cost Engineering over the typical theory-heavy subjects such as Structural Mechanics. “Although it’s absolutely necessary to know all the theory, I really prefer talking and working with people and the soft skills that go into the behind-the-scenes tasks of a civil engineer.”

Lee has no regrets about his choice to study civil engineering at Swinburne. “It’s a great program at Swinburne and I feel both supported and challenged. They even helped connect me with Civilex in the first place when I was researching various placement opportunities. Swinburne places a high priority on gaining industry experience, not just good grades.” While Lee is working at Civilex he is also gaining credits towards his civil engineering degree even though he’s not studying during this time.

Lee has relished working at Civilex for the simple fact that it helped put theory into practice. “Once I started with Civilex, I was so relieved. I realised everything I’d studied – all that theory – could be applied outside the classroom; it’s just ten times more detailed in real working life.”

Student Placement Life
Lee had just completed his third year at Swinburne in November 2017 when he commenced his placement at Civilex. Since Lee lives in the western suburbs, he thought the head office location (then in Hoppers Crossing and now in Spotswood) was most convenient. “[It] was absolutely nerve-wracking because it was the first proper adult kind of thing I’d ever applied for! This was what I’d been preparing for my entire life so getting this placement was huge.”

Lee’s undergraduate placement experience has been a positive and beneficial one that has helped shape his future career plans. “I learn so much every day at Civilex. I’m really lucky as I’ve been placed on a variety of projects – one was three hours away from home up in Sale, which has really given me a new perspective of how to manage myself in regards to working, commuting and looking after myself.”

Currently, Lee is on-site at Melbourne Airport involved in Civilex’s Dynamic Signage project. His previous civil engineering placement experience had been at the East Sale RAAF Defence Base and the early works at the HMAS Cerberus Navy Base located at Cribb Point. Both defence projects have involved a stringent security clearance. “I really wanted industry experience and I’ve got it at Civilex. I’m at a point where all my preparation at secondary school and uni has finally come together.”,

Civilex Mentors
As part of his placement journey, Lee was shown the ropes – projects, systems, people – by Project Engineer Ibrahim Demiri, our Global Day of the Engineer and one of Civilex’s young up-and-coming engineers. “Ibrahim busted my pre-conceived notion that I’d be mentored by older, more senior engineers. Here at Civilex, that’s not always the case – many of my mentors are closer to my age and it’s great working alongside my peer group.”

Lee has also been exposed to the more senior management at Civilex including Operations Manager Matt Gurney. “I remember my initial interview with Matt, well it was more of a conversation really, where he asked me why I was interested in doing my placement with Civilex and what particular projects I would like to gain exposure to.” It must have been a good chat because that afternoon Lee was offered a placement.

In Lee’s Spare Time
Lee is big into music and always has been. He started playing music at around 10 years of age and continues to play the keyboard, guitar, drums and he also sings. “Anytime I’m feeling bored, I’ll just pick up my guitar and start strumming. I have written some of my own songs, but I prefer singing covers.”

Lee may have first discovered his passion for civil engineering in New York all those years ago, but it was on his most recent family visit there – when he was asked to perform at his grandparents 50th wedding anniversary – that he let his love of music steal everyone’s hearts. Lee performed two songs for his grandparents: the French song La Vie En Rose and Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon.

Lee – you are a star!

We wish Lee all the very best for both his future with Civilex and completing his civil engineering degree at Swinburne University. And we look forward to catching up with Civilex’s current music festival wanderer Alex upon his return.

Swinburne University is holding its annual Open Day on Sunday 29 July 10am-4pm in Hawthorn. And don’t miss out on Swinburne’s Open Day Highlights by taking the interactive challenge – Are You Engineering Material?

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