The construction veteran, who has worked in myriad roles across the globe for half a century, reflects on her journey as a trailblazer for women in the industry.
Tess Wakasugi-Don, Principal and Senior Project Manager of GLY Construction, is the first female principal in the firm’s 52-year history. Watch her interview construction management senior, Lisa Benjamin.
Carrie Sturts Dossick didn’t set out to break new ground when she decided to pursue civil engineering in college. “It never dawned on me that I shouldn’t do it and I came in a bit oblivious to the fact that I was joining a male-dominated field. I just thought that it was an interesting subject and I wanted to try it.”
In honor of Women’s History Month, we asked Teaching Assistant Professor, Darlene Septelka, to share her experience as a woman with 50 years of experience in the construction field.
Growing up, Darlene didn’t experience the gendering of toys. Her parents made no distinction between playing with trucks, blocks or Barbies. “I never felt like ‘girls don’t do that,’ or that I should be playing with dolls, or that there was a role I needed to portray.” One day her dad dumped a pile of sand in the backyard, and she spent hours building cities in it.
When Darlene was in junior high, a vocational school opened up in her district. Her parents felt that graduating with a practical skill was important, so she was one of the few women who enrolled. Darlene majored in electronics as one of just five girls in her graduating class. She then went on to technical college where she switched from electronics to civil engineering, and earned her associate’s degree.
“I always liked seeing how things were built.”
Being in the minority as a woman at her vocational school prepared her for a career in a male-dominated field.
Navigating a career in construction as a young woman
After graduating in 1972, Darlene worked as a draftsman in an apprentice program for a large architectural engineering firm in Boston. As the only woman in the program, she started to notice some of the issues in the industry that women would face. She remembers having to sit in the front of the open-floor office near the supervisor, because management thought she would be “a distraction.” Darlene didn’t want to stay at the drawing table, though – she wanted to get out in the field, and she wasn’t going to let the sexism she faced stop her. “I was told ‘there’s no role for you, other than if you want to be a secretary’.” When there were layoffs, a coworker said to her, “why aren’t you home having a baby, so another guy can have this job?”
For Darlene to get the field experience she wanted, she left Boston for Charlotte, North Carolina to work on a construction site. Darlene recalls being out doing an investigation on a nuclear power plant. “It was a huge construction site, and I remember going downstairs into a deep well in the basement where the mechanical equipment was. My responsibility was pipe support and ensuring the design would work. If it couldn’t, I had to design on the spot, head back up to the office, do a quick sketch, and send it to a California office who could run the calculation on it. While I was in the basement, some workers flushed a bunch of water down there and laughed.”
The lack of diversity and the defined gender roles in her first field experience led Darlene out of the south and back to New England. As she moved into leadership, she saw more issues emerge as a woman in that role.
Paving a path to the top
When it was time for the next opportunity, Darlene applied for a job at a nuclear power plant in Aberdeen, Washington. She was flown to New York for the interview. During the interview process, she found it unfair that she was tested on whether she could read drawings. She felt she had to go “the extra mile” to get hired, compared to male applicants. “When I was hired, the idea was that someone else was going to move up and I would take their position. But after I arrived, they had put another person with less supervisory experience in the role. I had to speak up and say ‘wait a minute, I traveled thousands of miles out here, based on a promise.’ I challenged them and I got the position.”
Even if it meant braving the freezing cold on the tide flats of New Hampshire doing welding inspections, Darlene always found a way to get the job done. And it earned her a promotion.
“You wanted to prove yourself and that you could do your work, so I ignored [the pushback] and did my job.”
There was a moment in Darlene’s career when she had to decide whether she had a future in this industry.
Thanks to the support of the late Steve Goldblatt, Darlene earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington. She would spend the next 12 years working at Boeing, overseeing and managing construction projects. She remained connected to UW and later returned to get her Masters degree in Construction Management, becoming the first-ever graduate of the program.
She went on to become an Associate Professor at Washington State University, and taught for several years before returning to industry. She got a job working for King County on a water treatment plant project – and it was the first time her own manager was a woman.
Before retiring, she spent three years in China working on large projects as a construction director. “There are a lot of women working in the construction field, but to have a woman in a leadership position was atypical there,” she recalls.
Coming back to the classroom years later, Darlene was pleasantly surprised to see the increase in diversity in the department and field. “I remember teaching at WSU and not having one woman in my class.”
The next generation
She recognizes that it will take a while for the increased entry-level diversity to reach the executive level, but believes that the industry is changing.
She hopes that women considering Construction Management or currently studying it see the change they’re trying to make. “I graduated in ‘72, so this is the 50 year anniversary of me being in construction. When I was coming up in the field, I had to rely on my own resilience, working harder to prove myself. But it shouldn’t be like that.”
“If you have the passion, hold your head up high and do the best job you can do. Find your safe space, find your community to help you work through the challenges.”
Ruben Salazar-Izquierdo, a student in the Masters in Construction Management program, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 2021. He anticipates finishing the program in June 2022. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is the largest U.S. exchange program offering opportunities for students and young professionals to undertake international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide.
We interviewed Ruben to gain insight into his thesis research as a graduate student, and his experience as a Fulbright scholar.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
R: I am from Peru. My undergraduate background is in Civil Engineering and I am in the Masters in Construction Management program on a Fulbright Scholarship. I was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship in 2021 and had the option of applying to five different universities. UW was the best option for me because the Construction Management program was the highest ranked.
I also love to play basketball and do other activities that Seattle provides. Seattle was the perfect fit for me because of the number of outdoor activities I can do here.
What influenced you to choose Construction Management?
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I started working at different construction companies all around Peru. I worked on many civil, industrial, and commercial projects. After that, I realized that I wanted to take a step forward and advance my career. Even as an Assistant Project Manager, I wanted to apply for better positions in the future, like Project Manager or Senior Project Manager. I wanted to learn the many strategies, tactics of negotiation and management tools used in complex projects.
How have you been able to utilize your skills here at UW?
Initially, I was just taking classes, but after that I started working for UW as a grader. I helped undergraduates with topics such as soils and foundations, cost accounting and financial management, and helped students in the continuing education program with project planning and control because these topics are related to my working experience in Peru. Back there, I worked as a scheduler, a cost control engineer, and an assistant project manager.
How does being in a program within the College of Built Environments that houses a diverse set of disciplines benefit you and your work?
In my Masters in Construction Management program, I have had some classmates that are architects and some who are involved in real estate. I would say that the added value of this program is having the opportunity to share experiences and see problems from different perspectives. So, it’s interesting to know their opinions about the same topic because, in my case, my main experience was related to construction, not with design or real estate development.
What challenges have you faced during your educational journey?
Applying to the program was initially very challenging because I needed to do the TOEFL exam and the GRE. I didn’t do well on my first TOEFL exam, but given that I wanted to go to UW, I continued to prepare myself. I started taking more classes and I took the exam again and obtained the score required to get accepted here at UW.
What have been the most impactful experiences you’ve had that have influenced your educational journey?
The most rewarding experience I’ve had is being in an environment that I was not familiar with. I was not able to speak in Spanish, my first language, so I pushed myself to improve my English very quickly in order to interact with more people such as my classmates and professors.
What is the purpose of the Fulbright Scholarship?
The main purpose is to strengthen bilateral relationships–cultural and educational–between the US and our home countries. When you apply to the Fulbright Scholarship, you propose a general idea for a project. Once you arrive at a college or university, you start working with your thesis advisor by providing them with your project idea and start highlighting the possibilities of a thesis topic based on your proposal. The main goal is to have the chance to apply what you are researching abroad in our home countries and create a positive impact once we return.
What is your thesis research?
My research is related to the circular economy and the ability to reuse materials in construction. In general terms, I realized that 60% of the waste in landfills comes from the construction industry; Peru is no exception. In Peru, we were having a period where construction was developing really fast. A lot of the materials we were using had a lot of potential for being recycled or reused in the future. So, I want to focus on this idea from different perspectives, from the perspective of the owner, from the perspective of the designer and also the general contractor. If the designer starts providing some ideas on how to implement these practices of circular economy, the general contractors will adapt the services they provide in order to meet the owner’s and designers requirements.
My thesis topic was awarded the John Schaufelberger Fellowship. It is a very helpful fellowship because it allows me to continue to be here in the US while I am developing this research.
Do you feel as though these practices of circular economy could be implemented in Peru? What do you see as potential barriers?
We will have some barriers, for sure. For example, building codes and other local regulations, and also the idea that you cannot use second hand materials for safety or quality concerns. But if you design the materials for having a second life, or even to have a longer lifespan, it is possible to reuse them. I think it’s going to be possible to implement this idea in the future.
Implementing this idea also starts with the opinion of the owner, if they say, “I want to have this building, but I also want to have the possibility to disassemble this building and reassemble it again in a different place,” obviously, the designer will need to adapt their ideas in order to fulfill the owner’s requirements.
Where do you see yourself after completion of the Construction Management program?
I applied to different companies last year for academic training. I got three job offers from different companies here in the US—all of them very good construction companies recognized all around the country. In the end, I decided to stay here in Seattle and work with Lease Crutcher Lewis, one of the most prestigious construction general contractors in the city. So, I’m excited to move forward with that.
What advice would you give students completing a graduate program at UW or are considering doing the Fulbright program?
Everything is a matter of preparation. For example, I really wanted to study at UW and even though I did not have the required scores needed initially to get in, I continued to push myself harder in order to achieve this goal.
First, you need to establish your goals clearly and start working towards them. If you are not a good English speaker, study English; push yourself to practice everyday. If you did not do well on the GRE, continue to prepare yourself. You also need to be very open minded because it’s a completely new environment. I was open to continuing learning, day after day, which is something really important to do.
In order to prepare, establish contacts. In my case, I had a really good relationship with my thesis advisor, who is also the chair of my department. He guided me all throughout the application process to UW and during classes. I spoke with him continuously asking for course recommendations and about professors to work with.
It is also important to create relationships with your classmates. Especially in construction, everything is about relationships. Many people you take classes with are going to be people whom you are going to work with in the future, maybe as coworkers or for different companies.
What final thoughts do you have about experience or time with the college?
One of the biggest advantages of my department was the relationships they established with different construction companies and design firms in Seattle and the US. Given we are at a prestigious university and my program is very prestigious, we have the possibility to get good job offers and contacts with some of the best companies in the US. This is one of the biggest advantages that UW and my program offer to all its students, it’s something remarkable.
Bid Day is a half-day exercise that takes place at the end of the Fall Quarter of a student’s senior year. It’s a chance for them to put into practice the skills learned to effectively and accurately review subcontractor and supplier bids. They are charged with summarizing them into the “low bid” and submitting to the instructor “on time” to simulate an actual real-life bid day experience. Their bids are compared to the “right answer” and represent 10% of their quarter grade.
We asked Larry Bjork, one of the Bid Day coordinators who’s been helping for the past 10 years, why it’s important students get this experience.
“After students graduate, they will begin their careers with general contractors. One of the common activities of a general contractor is to competitively bid projects. So, students need to learn at a very basic level the principals behind the evaluation of bids and the proper way to recap them in an organized manner, all the while being under pressure to turn in their bid on time.” – Larry Bjork, Construction Management Affiliate Instructor
The exercise heats up towards the end of the day as time winds down.
“The phone bids that come in over the last hour of the exercise is my favorite part of the day,” says Larry. “We intentionally give them difficult situations to deal with to see if they can keep their cool and to see how they respond. It’s the best and most fun part for everyone and that hour is the stuff of legend now. We have a lot of fun with it.”
Over the years the projects have gotten more complicated, the bids have gotten more complicated, and the number of bids has increased – a necessary step to ensure it remains current and reflects the reality of working in the industry.
View photos from Bid Day 2021
Charleston Burr was a transfer student in our Construction Management program and an Andrew Eker Scholarship Scholar. Originally from Kent, Washington, he transferred to UW in 2020, from Green River College in Auburn. Charleston graduated in 2021 and is now a Project Engineer at Hensel Phelps, where he is focusing on gaining experience and developing professionally while working on a diverse range of unique and challenging construction projects. This interview was conducted in 2021 while Charleston was attending UW.
Degree program: Construction Management
Hometown: Kent, Washington
Transferred from: Green River College
Tell me a little bit about yourself:
I was born in Renton, Washington, and have lived in the south Puget Sound region for my entire life. I started college pretty young but got bored and dropped out when I was 19 or 20 (I’ve never claimed to be the most intelligent person in the room.) Once I got established and came to my senses, I decided to go back to school. I think I made the right choice.
I did my prerequisites at Green River College in Auburn because it was close to home and an opportunity to save some money during my first two years of college. I had the chance to enroll at UW a year earlier than planned if I had taken 25 credits over a summer, but I decided against that. During my year off, I took up a second job at Green River as a tutor for six courses.
What made you choose the Construction Management major?
There’s a strong argument that fate played a role in my decision; my dad has been in the industry for 40+ years, and I have two siblings who work in the industry as members of the UA Local 32 union. A better argument is that I was working in the industry when I decided to go back to school and didn’t want to throw away the little career capital that I had earned. But really, it is that I like to build things, and I enjoy working alongside the people that find their way into this industry.
What has been your favorite part of the department so far?
My favorite thing about the department is the close ties with the local construction industry. The department does an excellent job involving affiliate instructors active in the industry, each offering a unique perspective based on their experience. There are also many learning opportunities out of the classroom, and industry professionals are always willing to help so long as we put ourselves out there.
What’s been the hardest part about transferring or the hardest part of this program?
In my experience, UW does an excellent job getting transfer students on our feet. The hardest part about the department was adjusting to the course load. I grew accustomed to taking no more than three classes at a time, so six courses in addition to work during my first quarter felt like overkill. It can be overwhelming at first, but it’s not so bad once you get used to it.
What experiences have been the most impactful for you outside of the classroom?
My favorite part by far has been the ASC Student Competitions. These competitions are held annually in Reno, Nevada, and allow schools from all over the country to compete in a wide range of categories (commercial, design-build, heavy civil, etc.) Teams are typically limited to six members, and most competitions require that a team spend 16 consecutive hours developing a proposal on a project recently completed by the problem sponsor. As a senior, my team submitted a proposal to Hensel Phelps on a $220M Operations and Maintenance Facility in Bellevue, WA for Sound Transit. I nearly dropped out of the team during my junior year, and I’m thankful for those who convinced me to stay on board. I like the team aspect, and I see these competitions as a low-risk opportunity to demonstrate your knowledge to industry professionals.
What would you say your dream job is?
I actually don’t spend a ton of time thinking about this. I try to focus on doing the best I can do today, and I think that most of the career opportunities available to me can be a “dream job” if I approach them with the right mindset. That said, I like variety, leading teams, and a good challenge. Something that features these attributes would probably be ideal.
Do you have any advice for transfer students?
Start early by working hard at school before you transfer into UW; the adjustment period will be much easier if you bring a good set of habits with you. Once you’re in, get plugged in early. Your peers already know how to navigate the college, and they’ll give you the resources you need to succeed. Get to know your faculty and work hard so that they get to know you. The college is big and has many resources; make sure you know which ones you need to get through your time here.
Do you have any words of advice for Construction Management students?
Ask questions, and when you run out of questions, find new ones. Seek to understand. Take advantage of the opportunities while you can. Treat every encounter like an opportunity to learn something new. Shoot high, and don’t be afraid of falling short. Accept that you’ll always encounter failure on the road to success. And finally, try to have fun.
- Shreyas Bhore, Team Captain – MS in Construction Management
- Mariele Alarilla, BS in CM and Architecture Dual Degree
- Geng Chen, BS in CM and Architecture Dual Degree
- Takanobu Suzuki, BS in CM and Architecture Dual Degree
- Abdirizak Abdi, BS in CM and Architecture Dual Degree
On November 8, the College hosted the Construction Management Career Expo. The booth-style event was held in-person at the HUB, and was attended by over 70 employers and students, including those from construction management, civil engineering, and other built environments disciplines.
The Prevention through Design (PtD) concept will improve worker safety, as applicable to Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing (MEP) design and construction.