Considering Civil Engineering? Three Students on Why They Chose the Major and What They Love About It

Author: Shannon Rooney

Looking to build a bright future in a field that just keeps growing? Check out the civil engineering major in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences (CEEES) at Notre Dame. You’ll be a part of a hands-on experience that includes field trips, undergraduate research, service projects, and national and regional project competitions. 

Below, three civil engineering majors talk about why they chose the major and what they love about it. 

Joan Deitschheadshot

Joan Deitsch '24

Major: Civil engineering

Why did you choose to major in civil engineering?

In high school, I was involved in the Envirothon competition, a natural resources management competition. This exposed me to soil science, which quickly became one of my favorite school topics, but I also really enjoyed my math classes.

By the end of high school, I was looking for something that could combine my interests. My dad suggested civil engineering. I looked into it and decided this was the major for me.

All infrastructure, everything civil engineers work on, rests upon soil and is influenced by the soil structure and properties at a particular site. In this way, I could keep my interests in soil alive, but also study the math and engineering processes that I had come to love.

Were you always interested in topics related to this major?

When most people think of civil engineering, they think of bridges, tall buildings, or roads. When I was younger, and my family went on road trips, I would study the connections in bridges and the way buildings swayed against the skyline.

So, yes, I suppose I have always been interested in topics related to civil engineering. As discussed in my answer above, as I finished high school and entered college, I became less interested in designing the connections or beams in structural systems (though I still find load paths very cool).

I want to study how a structure’s foundation is influenced by the soil in which it is built. I have found myself pulled towards geotechnical engineering, a discipline of civil engineering, that will allow me to study my dear friend soil again!

What has been your favorite class in the program and why?

Fluid Mechanics. It was taught by the CEEES department chair, Dr. Bolster, and it was just the best. Though I don’t plan to be a fluid mechanician, Dr. Bolster made the class really fun and helped us to think about how fluid mechanics applies to everyday life.

For a question on one assignment, I explained the fluid mechanics behind the scene in Brooklyn 99 (one of my favorite TV shows) when Jake goes flying backwards in a rolling chair that has an open fire extinguisher attached to it. The fun questions like these helped offset the challenges of learning how to apply the Navier-Stokes equations. All in all, it was a great time and I looked forward to going to lecture, even on Fridays!

Have you conducted any related research or independent study?

I am currently working as an undergrad researcher in Dr. Joannes Westerink’s lab, the Computational Hydraulics Laboratory.

This lab’s focus is on modeling storm surges, and I am helping to analyze tidal wave amplitude data! I have also done some research with Dr. Yazen Khasawneh, during which I learned about seismicity in the New Madrid seismic zone.

What makes the civil engineering program at Notre Dame stand out among programs like it at other schools?

The community. The program is relatively small, and I think that is one of its biggest strengths. Students get to know faculty easily because of the small class sizes.

The faculty are approachable and truly dedicated to teaching. If I have a question, my professors will work with me until I understand.

Moreover, the students support each other, rather than compete against each other. Many of my happiest ND memories were made at tables in Fitzpatrick as my friends and I got distracted from our homework and became overcome with laughter at something ridiculous.

Do you have any advice for prospective students who are considering a major in civil engineering?

Try it out! At Notre Dame, the first year of engineering is aimed towards helping students discern their interests. Take advantage of this, and don’t be afraid to talk to the professors and students who are available to talk about their experiences and interests within civil engineering.

(Also, don’t be afraid of Googling your questions. I highly recommend talking to people, rather than wholeheartedly trusting an article online, but Google can give you a general background to start from.)

Finally, when you get to campus, go to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) meetings. I have been involved with this club since my second month on campus. It’s a fun way to hear about types of civil engineering, meet other civils, and ask whatever questions you have in an informal setting. You should also join the ASCE concrete canoe club, because who doesn’t love to build a canoe out of concrete?

What are your career/post-graduate plans?

I plan to go to graduate school to study geotechnical engineering!


Finn O'Reilly '24

Major: Civil engineering (Structural concentration)
Minor: Engineering corporate practice

Why did you choose to major in civil engineering?

Coming into Notre Dame, I knew that I wanted to be an engineer, but I had not narrowed down which type of engineering I wanted to major in.

I found each engineering discipline interesting and unique so it wasn’t really until my engineering discernment class in the fall of freshman year where we were introduced to the various disciplines in this course.

I can remember just being drawn to civil engineering; I loved the idea of working on large scale projects such as buildings, bridges, and roads and learning how those massive projects came together from the design phase all the way to the completion of construction.

Overall, I felt like civil engineering was the major in which I can see myself best using my skills to be a force for good by working towards providing safe infrastructure for my surrounding community.

Were you always interested in topics related to this major?

Yes, I always loved math and science from a young age, and in high school, I really began to focus more on those subjects and even participated on the engineering team where I applied that knowledge of math and science to solve engineering problems.

Growing up, I was also always amazed by skyscrapers and bridges, and I knew I wanted to learn about how those structures were created.

Finally, I grew up in a family of engineers, my dad and both of my grandpas majored in different types of engineering, and I loved helping them with projects around the house or just listening to them talk about their careers throughout my childhood.

What has been your favorite class in the program and why?

My favorite class in the program so far has been reinforced concrete design, which I took this past spring semester. I loved the class because we learned how to apply all the fundamental engineering principles that we had been learning since freshman year in order to actually design the structural members that compose buildings and bridges.

Moreover, the class involved a semester-long project in which we each individually performed the preliminary, partial design of a 5 story office building. I found this project to be very rewarding because it was a culmination of all the design principles we had learned in class, and it also really sparked my interest into the design element of civil engineering.

Have you conducted any related research or independent study?

I conducted research in the Computational Hydraulics Lab at Notre Dame with Dr. Westerink this past semester where I primarily focused on developing a code to extract the centerlines of river channels that were not already included in the lab's model.

The goal was ultimately to be able to add the channels into the existing model to more accurately predict compound flooding events. I made good progress in extracting the centerlines from the data this past spring and overall had a great experience working in the lab.

What makes the civil engineering program at Notre Dame stand out among programs like it at other schools?

The professors are so knowledgeable and passionate about the subject areas that they teach, which creates a very strong learning environment.

The professors make themselves available to help you with school work and career advice as well as offer excellent opportunities to do research with them if you are interested in learning more about civil engineering.

It is very evident that all of the professors in the department want the best for their students and want to see their students succeed.

Do you have any advice for prospective students who are considering a major in civil engineering?

My best advice to prospective students considering civil engineering is to get involved with the civil engineering clubs on campus such as American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), ND Seed, Concrete Canoe, and Steel Bridge.

These clubs give you the opportunity to meet people in your major, to learn more about various aspects of civil engineering, and to have fun! I personally have been a part of ASCE and Concrete Canoe for the past two years, and I have made a number of great friends, learned a lot, and have been able to apply things I have learned in my courses.

What are your career/post-graduate plans?

As of right now, I am still deciding what I want to do after I graduate. Over the summer, I did a construction management internship with Anning Johnson in Chicago which I enjoyed, and then I have one more year at Notre Dame. 

I am considering potentially doing the one-year master's of engineering at Notre Dame after I graduate, which I would do if I decide I want to go into structural design. 


Liz Chen '25

Major: Civil engineering

Why did you choose to major in civil engineering?

Civil engineering incorporates all the aspects of engineering and design that I love. I love the idea of being able to use my technical knowledge as well as my creative side to build fantastical structures in the future.

I really like that by becoming a civil engineer I will design structures that are tangible and that I will be able to look back on with pride.

Were you always interested in topics related to this major?

Yes! I have always been interested in building structures in which people live and thrive. As a kid, I loved building little houses and buildings with LEGOs. The interest in building structures never faded and that is why I am majoring in civil engineering now.

What has been your favorite class in the program and why?

It’s a bit hard to choose because the professors in the CEEES department are one of a kind. Every CEEES professor is so down-to-earth and very easy to talk to. It is very clear that they all want to see their students succeed.

If I had to choose a favorite, I would say it was a civil engineering technical elective that I took freshman year with Dr. Fargier-Gabaldon. The class was called Build, Break Perfect. In this class, we built two bridges - one spanned 12-feet and the other bridge spanned 100-feet across DeBart Quad. Putting in the work to make those two big projects succeed was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had in college thus far.

During my major crisis, this class provided me with a lot of clarity on what I could see myself doing in the future. I actually went and declared my major right after the 12-foot bridge was finished—that was how incredible that experience was.

Have you conducted any related research or independent study?

I have not yet conducted any research related to civil engineering. I am hoping to start a research project with one of my favorite professors this coming semester on the impacts of different types of loading on various structures.

What makes the civil engineering program at Notre Dame stand out among programs like it at other schools?

I do not know much about the civil engineering programs at other universities, but I do know that it is rare to find a civil engineering program that gives their students the opportunity to build two bridges before the end of their freshman year.

In addition, while Notre Dame is known famously for its tight-knit community, the civil engineering community at Notre Dame really takes the community aspect to heart. There is a huge sense of camaraderie within the major and the department. Everyone is going through the same struggles, so everyone is always eager to help each other out.

Do you have any advice for prospective students who are considering a major in civil engineering?

If you are like me and don’t quite know what you are getting yourself into, don’t be afraid to reach out to one of the upperclassmen or professors to really understand civil engineering.

If you are already thinking about civil engineering, you should definitely try it before you toss it! Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and try the different clubs that the civil engineering community has to offer.

What are your career/post-graduate plans?

After graduation, I hope to go to graduate school and get my Master’s Degree in Structural Engineering. Eventually, I want to be a licensed structural engineer in the future.

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