Demissie credits Dual Degree program, internships, for success

As an undergraduate, Mahlet “Mahi” Demissie always knew she wanted to be an engineer, but wasn’t sure what kind. A summer internship with a general contractor led to her passion for construction management, a blend of project management and engineering skills.
Mahlet “Mahi” Demissie

Demissie, a native of Ethiopia, earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis in 2007 through the Dual Degree program with Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, where she earned a degree in general science with a physics concentration. The Dual Degree program allows undergraduate students to earn two bachelor’s degrees in five years at two universities: a non-engineering degree at liberal arts college or university and an engineering degree at WashU. After completing her bachelor’s degrees, she stayed at WashU. for another year to earn a master’s in construction management through the Sever Institute in 2008. Since then, she has been working as a senior project engineer for Sellen Construction in Seattle.

At Sellen, Demissie manages scopes for the construction of new building projects or tenant improvements. In fact, her first project was working on the new headquarters building for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since then, she has also worked on buildings and tenant improvements for and Microsoft Corp., in addition to the renovation of Peyton Hall at Seattle Preparatory School and construction of headquarters for local fishing and manufacturing companies.

Demissie says construction management was a “natural fit” for her.

“I love seeing buildings go up, enjoy the constant interaction with people, working on budgets and coordinating with subcontractors,” she said. “There are so many different factors that I’m in charge of, and it doesn’t get boring. It’s also great to drive down the street and see a building and say that you were part of the team that built it.”

Demissie credits the civil engineering training at WashU for providing a good foundation for her career in construction management.

“I understand the drawings I’m looking at and can actively discuss issues with architects or engineers,” she said. “And the construction management background equipped me with a variety of tools that I use daily, such as estimating and scheduling and how to manage large projects when working with different kinds of people. I believe that the combination of both degrees gave me a uniquely solid background for the industry.”

In addition to her education, Demissie says completing three internships before finishing her master’s degree, as well as networking with professionals at industry events, were key factors in her success.

While working on the civil engineering degree, she worked in the Career Center at WashU as a career peer. She then completed a summer internship at Hunter Roberts Construction Group in New York as an assistant estimator intern.

“That was an enlightening experience, and it introduced me to the construction field,” she says.

After completing her bachelor’s degree from WashU, she was a summer engineer intern at Sellen, and while working on her master’s, she worked full-time as an engineer intern at Clayco in St. Louis. She was hired full-time at Sellen after finishing the master’s degree.

“Students often don’t understand that you need to have several internships before you get a good offer or job,” she said. “It’s not always about how high your grades are or how great of a student you are. It’s about your work experience and how you can translate what you learned into the ‘working world.’ Students should really take advantage of the Career Center.”

She also credits Steve Bannes, instructor and director of graduate studies in construction management, for introducing her to various industry groups, some of which she is still involved with today, such as the Association for General Contractors (AGC).

“Steve was amazing,” she said. “He has a lot of students that he works with; however, he really helped each of us chart a course for what we wanted to do.”

Since she has lived in Seattle, Demissie has volunteered and led groups with the ACE Mentor Program, a national mentoring program that matches professionals with high school students interested in careers in architecture, construction or engineering. Students in the program receive a proposal, and throughout the program, they design, budget and schedule the project and present it to their peers, parents and counselors at the end. She remains involved with Engineers Without Borders and recently became involved with Construction for Change, an organization that collaborates with non-governmental organizations to build facilities in developing countries.

Demissie’s experience in the field as well as being a mentor with ACE has given her some good insight for prospective engineers.

“When you first start in engineering, you have so many options,” she said. “It can get overwhelming at times, but just take your time and really choose the one that fits your personality, passions and what you ultimately want to be doing.”

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 91 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, more than 900 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.