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Co-op Student of the Year

February 4, 2016

Congratulations to Civil Engineering Student Kelly O’Connell who won the 2015-2016 Co-op Student of the Year award from the Cooperative and Experiential Education Division of ASEE.


Source: News @ Northeastern

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.”