Have you ever fallen into an internet rabbit hole?
Tia Clemens did, and the journey changed her life.
It started when Clemens was watching TED Talks videos with her daughter.
“We found one episode about this machine they had built to capture clean water in the Namib Desert in southern Africa,” Clemens said. “It used biomimicry, based on the Namib Desert beetle.
“I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. I went down this weird rabbit hole of researching all these places where they don’t have water. It just spiraled out from there.”
Clemens had discovered an aspect of civil engineering.
Sibling envy motivated her to find out more.
Clemens’s brother is a mechanical engineer and physicist who works at NASA.
“A: I was very jealous,” Clemens said. “And B: (My brother) just encouraged me to go for it. I thought I was bad at math, but he convinced me to take a pre-calculus class. If I could do pre-calculus, I could get through the rest.
“I took that on a whim. Then I just kept going.”
Clemens was eager for a career switch after working at places like gas stations, restaurants and offices.
Clemens, who served in Afghanistan with the Army Reserves, took her military earnings and returned to school to become a civil engineer.
Not alone in school
Clemens assumed she didn’t have the typical background of most engineering students.
She was a non-traditional student, single mom and had changed majors several times during prior college stints.
With a young child at home, Clemens needed something close to Springfield.
“I couldn’t just live on campus with my kid. I couldn’t afford to have my house here in Springfield and then rent a place somewhere else,” she said. “As I was looking online, I happened to see that Missouri S&T has a cooperative program at Missouri State. It was just a perfect fit.”
Clemens was glad to see she was not an outlier among her classmates.
“The people I was in class with, specifically in the civil engineering program, about 50% of them were non-traditional students,” Clemens said. “They had regular daytime jobs and many had kids and didn’t live on campus.
“It’s a lot easier to be around your peers, you know.”
“I would get into something and try it then realize, ‘I don’t actually like this.’ Then I discovered civil engineering and thought, ‘Oh, I really, really like this! This is something I can do for a long time.’”
Clemens had a lot of catching up to do. She lacked any math or science classes up to that point.
With help from her professors, she quickly got up to speed.
“The engineering professors are really invested in our success as students,” Clemens said. “They legitimately care that you’re going to do well.”
Clemens, who received a Citizen Scholars award in 2018-19, describes civil engineering as “problem solving.”
“That’s my entire job,” said Clemens, who graduated in fall 2018. “I have people come to me, they have this issue and I have to figure it out.”
Intern becomes employee
While in school, Clemens had an internship at Olsson, a national engineering and design firm with offices in Springfield.
“They didn’t have an internship opening at the time, but Dr. Matt Pierson made that connection for me,” she said. “I asked my boss at the time (at Olsson) if I could take him to lunch and ask him a bunch of questions about wastewater engineering, to kind of get my foot in the door.”
Clemens’s internship went so well that Olsson couldn’t let her go.
They hired her as a full-time employee.
“I cried,” Clemens said about receiving the job offer. “I was really happy. I figured it might happen, but I was still relieved and thought it was awesome.”
As an assistant engineer at Olsson, Clemens designs water and wastewater treatment systems.
She gets paid to work on the projects and systems she used to binge watch online.
“I would not have been able to become a civil engineer without the MSU and S&T program,” Clemens said. “It’s very supportive, especially if you have an alternative schedule. They’re willing to work with you and get you over the finish line no matter what.”