When most students’ phones ring in class, it’s a friend or a parent or someone else who can wait. For Rachel Brashear, though, ignoring that phone call could slow progress on an $11 million renovation of Georgia Tech’s Van Leer Building.
Hopefully that means her professors will forgive her for answering occasionally.
“I get calls sometimes in the middle of class from trade contractors, and I'm like, ‘I can't talk to you right now,’” Brashear recounted recently. “One time I was doing something and the architect called me, and I was like, ‘I should probably answer this.’”
Why would trade contractors and architects working on the new Interdisciplinary Design Commons in Van Leer be bugging a fourth-year civil engineering student all throughout the day? The answer is thanks to an incredible opportunity afforded Brashear by the firm leading construction on the project, Gilbane Building Company.
For the last year and a half, she’s been filling the role of on-site project engineer, working 20 hours a week or more while taking a full course load to finish her degree. Brashear is part of Gilbane’s small team on the construction site day to day, along with a project manager and a superintendent — the result of great timing when she went to the company looking for an internship.
Rachel Brashear, left, discusses plans for the Interdisciplinary Design Commons with part of the construction team. She has been working for Gilbane Building Company, filling the role of the on-site project engineer for the last year and a half while she finishes her bachelor's degree in civil engineering. “One of the tough things from the beginning was getting confident enough in what I was doing to be authoritative in my position,” Brashear said. “I had no choice but to figure it out; it was my responsibility to make it work. So I definitely learned a lot really fast.” (Photo Courtesy: Rachel Brashear)
“I was interviewing for a summer position when I first got this job, and they said, ‘We actually need help with a job at Georgia Tech starting in two weeks. Would you be interested?’ And I thought, why not?”
It made sense. Brashear thought she wanted to pursue a career in construction management. Now that she’s been doing it, she knows it’s the right choice.
“On-the-spot problem solving is pretty appealing to me,” Brashear said. “It’s super cool to be able to understand the design and understand all the intentions, but I like also being a part of the hands-on, how do you actually build this?
“There is a lot of satisfaction to being on the ground of things being created and seeing them come to life, even though it all began with the computer.”
The design commons will be the newest maker space at Tech, 15,000 square feet of collaboration and design area with equipment for electronic prototyping, embedded systems design, and fabrication. The possibilities of such a space are not lost on Brashear, even as she’s deeply engrained in the details of construction.
Rendering of the finished Texas Instruments Plaza outside the renovated Van Leer rotunda, which will house a new Interdisciplinary Design Commons.
“[This project is] the gift that keeps giving. Things are going to be produced there and things are going to be invented, and awesome things are going to happen there,” Brashear said. “It's really rewarding to know that I've been able to help future students create great things.”
That’s not to say the experience hasn’t come without challenges. Brashear has a lot of responsibility — and a lot to balance as she finishes her degree.
“I’d say last spring was probably the toughest because I was getting used to working 20 hours and being a full-time student,” she said. “I've since gotten into a groove where I know that I have to do all of my homework on the weekends and study for everything on the weekends, and then just focus on classes and work during the week.”
She said she’s also been forced to grow on the job site. Even though she’s still a student, she’s also part of the project’s management team.
“One of the tough things from the beginning was getting confident enough in what I was doing to be authoritative in my position,” Brashear said. “I had no choice but to figure it out; it was my responsibility to make it work. So I definitely learned a lot really fast.”
Brashear said she’s been in class learning about construction concepts like raised-access flooring, and she could look out the window at the jobsite — her jobsite — and see raised-access flooring going in.
“Nobody else in the class probably knew that was going on, but it was cool that I can make that connection. It’s leaving me a whole new understanding of a lot of the concepts of construction management.”
The remade Van Leer rotunda and design commons opens later this year. When it does, Brashear will have a unique perspective on a project reshaping its corner of campus. She said it’s a nice way to leave a mark on her alma mater, long after she’s gone.
“I’m not only gaining experience in my field and with what I want to do, but I’m also, in a way, contributing to the campus and community that I really care about.”