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FIRST PERSON: Life-changing letter leads Tzegaegbe to London – eventually

Thursday, April 30, 2015

An occasional series of first-person essays from alumni and students in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

By Jacob Tzegaegbe, B.S. 2011, M.S. 2013

I’ll never forget the moment I opened my Georgia Tech acceptance letter. Of the three schools I applied to, Tech was at the top of my list: my “reach” school. So, you can understand how surprised and elated I was to receive the news. At the time, I had no idea just how life-changing that single letter would be.

A Nigerian-Israeli first-generation American, I was daunted by the idea of enrolling in Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering. I chose civil engineering as my major, despite never having actually met a civil engineer, because my father was in construction and the idea of building things seemed “cool.” With this step, I not only became the first person in my family to attend college, but I ventured into an uncharted territory filled with college-level academics, athletics, student involvement, and research. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed.

After I arrived at Tech, it was not long before I began to meet exceptional faculty and staff through informal introductions and my courses. I quickly found myself surrounded by people who had accomplished more than any ambitions I held, and they were actively pushing me to strive for more. Ultimately, it was the people — peers, advisors, faculty, and staff -- at Tech who inspired me to aspire to be exceptional.

After two years on the Georgia Tech Swimming and Diving team, I gave up sports and picked up student leadership to challenge myself and grow in a different way. I learned lessons in resilience and determination as a student leader trying to make an impact on the campus through various positions — senior class president in Student Government, president of the Georgia Tech Student Foundation, and president of my fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha.

Student leadership quickly translated to professional opportunities for internships. Before I knew it, I had already accomplished my longtime goal of becoming the first person in my family to earn a college degree and was well on my way to completing a master’s degree in engineering.

From leadership experiences to internships in energy and management consulting, I’ve found that the skills I learned in my engineering classes carry me to success regardless of the context. While I’m not directly using my structural analysis skills to determine how a building will fail, I have an innate ability to quickly structure problems and systematically solve them. Tech trained me early on to take complex systems and break them into smaller parts I can understand. When faced with a problem that seems insurmountable to many of my non-engineering peers, I feel confident that I’ll find a way forward because nothing is as complex as it first seems. And even more important, impossible is just perspective.

My engineering degrees, and my problem-solving skills learned through engineering, have opened doors I never dreamed of while growing up. As I write this, I am sitting at my kitchen table in London pursuing further education on a Marshall Scholarship from the British government. Last year, I completed a second master’s degree in Mega Infrastructure Planning, Appraisal, and Delivery at University College London, and I’m currently enrolled in my third (and final!) degree in Urban Economic Development.

As I learn the “softer” sides of how cities and infrastructure work to serve the public, I’m ever thankful that I decided to first pursue an engineering degree. I’ve found that it is rare to find people passionate about building better cities who have the technical, policy, business, and leadership experience required to understand the bigger picture. My hope is to one day be one of these rarities.

The opportunities that lie before me and my future ambitions are far loftier than any dreams I could have imagined at the moment I received my Georgia Tech acceptance letter. It’s mind-blowing that a single piece of paper changed my entire world and has equipped me with the skills build our future. Cliche as it may sound, my life ambition is to literally and figuratively build a better world — one city at a time. Though it is an immense challenge, Tech taught me early on that no matter how big or impossible an obstacle may seem, there is always a way. And after “getting out” of Tech (twice!), I know anything is possible.

This essay first appeared in the spring 2015 issue of Engineers, the magazine of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering.