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Hello World by Alex Castrechini, P.E.

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Hello world! I am an engineer working at P Joseph Lehman Consulting Engineers. I want to tell you about how I became an engineer and some of the obstacles I overcame before we get into more talk about women in engineering. I hope you find this story enjoyable, inspiring, and honest!

First, I need to rewind back in time for a little background information….

My grandfather came on the ship SS Belvedere from Napoli, Italy in 1922 at the age of 22 to find work in America after a brutal World War I. He worked in a copper foundry in south Altoona for a few years and sent money back home to Italy for his wife and his son. He eventually moved back to Italy permanently before my father was born.

My parents were both born in a small town between Roma and Napoli called Pontecorvo, Italy. My mom had to quit school in Italy in the 5th grade because, well, she was a woman and didn’t need to be educated, plus she was needed to work on the farm. My father went to college to become an elementary school teacher but abandoned that ambition and moved to the United States in 1969 when he was 18 years old in search of a better future (against the desires of his parents). He went back to Italy, married my mom, and brought her to live with him in Altoona in 1972.

My parents having both immigrated from Italy brought with them an old-world mentality of men and women are what their roles are in society and relationships. I was born in 1978, the same year that my grandfather died in Italy, and my grandmother came to live with us in America. She grew up through two world wars in Italy and was a tough woman, having weathered a lot of tough times and difficulty (also, she did not know how to read or write). Being born female in a family that put more value on men than women meant I was disadvantaged from the beginning. It was a big disappointment to my grandmother that I was not a male to carry on my grandfather’s name (the tradition in their hometown was to name people after those who have passed away). My mother later told me that she wept because of this! I always felt that it’s totally not fair to make people feel bad about something that they can’t help or change, and this angered me.   When my brother was born three years later, it was like trumpets and horns sounded from heaven and all their prayers had been answered.

Being compared to my brother, watching him receiving preferential treatment, having any achievements of mine being minimized… wore down my self-esteem over time. By the time I was in 8th grade, I really didn’t think much of myself. My grades started to suffer because I literally thought why bother when my brother always outdoes me (he is super smart, to his credit). The result for me was the same whether I got all A’s or all B’s – it was never good enough.

When I went to college at Penn State (which was decided for me) in 1996. I’d say I was in the pits self-esteem wise, in terms of direction and goals, in terms of what I could do with my life. I had no career direction because my parents did not know how to provide it. I changed majors 5 times but still graduated in 4 years with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing.

I joined the work force after that, not employed in my chosen field of marketing, but started out doing Accounts Receivable work. Over time at that employer, I had a mentor there who believed in me, encouraged me, and showed me how to excel (of which I am forever grateful). My self-esteem, self-efficacy, and motivation soared higher than it had ever been in my life. I came to a point where I thought, is there more for me to do? Is this the end of the road? I knew that the answers to those questions were a resounding YES and NO. I felt confident enough to say, why don’t I go back to school to become an engineer? So, in 2003, I did precisely that.

My family did not really support my decision for several reasons. Some of the things I heard were:

Are you sure you can DO it?

What’s the point when you’re going to get married and have kids?

No one in our family has done it….

You’re too old now.

Why didn’t you do this the first time you went to school?

Nevertheless, I contacted Penn State’s Assistant Dean of Civil Engineering and we worked out a plan.   She said that I would need three years to complete the Civil Engineering program, since I had general education courses out of the way from my first degree, and that I would be non-degree for the first semester and needed to achieve a GPA of 3.5 for entry into their program. I completed my first semester with a 3.63 GPA and received a scholarship for academic excellence. I graduated in 2006 from Penn State University with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering with a structural emphasis. This was one of the happiest days of my life, having achieved what I set out to do and against all the odds.

Today I am a licensed professional engineer in PA. When I received my certificate, my dad asked me to copy it and put it in a frame beside the copies of mine and my brother’s college degrees. He never told us how proud he was, but it was evident by seeing the display of frames in his office and studying his face as he looked at them. To me that vindicated the years of sacrifice, pain, and weathering all the storms in my life to that point.

I hope you enjoyed hearing my story! Contact me if you have any questions or need any encouragement to achieve your goals, or if you want to tell me your story – at acastrechini@lehmanengineers.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

Alexandra M. Castrechini is a Professional Engineer at P. Joseph Lehman, Inc. Consulting Engineers working in the Bridge Department. She can be reached through email at acastrechini@lehmanengineers.com or by calling 814-695-7500.

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