Coughlin Porter Lundeen Endowed Scholarship Provides BIPOC Students Access to Civil Engineering

Cory Hitzemann, ’97, BS Civil Engineering, and George Theo, ’95, BS Psychology, met at Seattle University. Both resided on the third floor of Bellarmine Hall and Theo fondly recalls Hitzemann tutoring him in calculus so he could pass the class after three years of immersion in the social sciences. Now, more than 20 years later, the two are collaborating at Coughlin Porter Lundeen), a structural, civil and seismic engineering firm headquartered in Seattle where they serve on the leadership team. Theo is the director of Human Resources and Hitzemann is a principal at the firm.

While following very different career paths to the company, Theo and Hitzemann continued to live the values instilled in them at SU and are now working together to bring diversity and inclusion to the civil engineering field, leveraging the firm’s strong community connections and longstanding partnership with the university.

The Start of a Fruitful Relationship

About a decade ago, Richard Schwaegler, PhD, a longtime professor in Seattle University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department, reached out to his good friend Jim Coughlin, co-founder of Coughlin Porter Lundeen, to refer a couple students he believed would make strong interns. This marked the start of a partnership between SU’s Civil Engineering department and the company that continues today.

“We definitely have a strong recruiting tie to SU for both interns and employees,” says Hitzemann, “and some interns work out as long-term hires. That’s how I got my start.”

The company also engages with SU in several other ways. Staff occasionally serve as guest lecturers in engineering programs, work with students on their senior projects, attend Project Day events and participate in the department’s Mentor Nights. Additionally, Hitzemann serves on the oversight board for the master’s program in Structural Engineering.

Increasing Diversity and Inclusion in the Civil Engineering Profession

Recently, the company decided to engage with SU in a new way, inspired by a pattern observed in their West Coast recruiting efforts. Few students from Seattle’s BIPOC community (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) were coming through these recruiting programs, with most residing outside the area].

“It’s too infrequent that we see a BIPOC student from Seattle,” Hitzemann confirms, “and we wanted to determine why these students are not finding—or taking—the engineering path. Our local industry has had a tough time diversifying.”

Of course, history plays into this reality. The engineering field has long been dominated by white males and there’s a generational pattern that repeats. If they don’t know anyone in the field, BIPOC students are more likely to lack awareness of the engineering disciplines and less likely to be drawn to an engineering profession.

“There are many employment opportunities for engineers in the Seattle area and it impacts the industry when individuals in our BIPOC community don’t feel there’s opportunity for them,” Theo explains. “We know that a diverse work pool creates better projects and more creative outcomes. But if people don’t see themselves in a professional field, they won’t take that path.”

Realizing that lack of access to education is another barrier to entering the field, Hitzemann proposed funding a scholarship at SU to the firm’s leadership team, which includes several SU alums, and achieved full buy-in. With guidance from Senior Development Officer Michelle Finet and Mike Marsolek, PhD, Chair of SU’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department, the Coughlin Porter Lundeen Endowed Scholarship in Civil Engineering was established.

“The scholarship reflects the commitment of our alumni and department to supporting traditionally underrepresented groups in engineering,” says Dr. Marsolek. “Beyond the financial assistance, the scholarship criteria make it clear to potential and current students that we value diversity and believe it improves our program and profession We are grateful to Cory and George for serving as the firm’s ‘contemplatives in action’ to bring this scholarship to fruition.”

To qualify for the scholarship, students must be pursuing a bachelor’s in civil engineering, either the traditional or environmental track, and demonstrate financial need. Preference will initially be given to transfer students from any of the main colleges or specialty training centers in the Seattle Colleges, though others are encouraged to apply. The first scholarship will be awarded this fall.

In addition to financial support, scholarship recipients receive access to mentoring opportunities with Coughlin Porter Lundeen engineers and potential internships.
“Our hope for this scholarship program in the long run is that it will help to break barriers,” says Hitzemann. “If BIPOC students see people like themselves interning and working at a company like this it’s going to help them to connect and feel a sense of belonging in civil engineering.”

“We also want to help students progress within civil engineering,” Theo says. “If a student doesn’t have the support they need at home, maybe the firm can be that support for them.”

“Looking back, Theo adds, “the Jesuit education Cory and I received at SU helped us understand how we can serve the greater good in Seattle and our region. And not just us—there are now 10 SU alumni working at our company. I see some of what happens at SU happening in our firm. We’re finding ways to provide access and opportunity to develop diverse leaders in our region’s civil engineering industry. It’s a parallel.”

Developing Early Pathways to Civil Engineering

In addition to engaging with students at the university level, Coughlin Porter Lundeen supports and sponsors involvement in professional organizations that promote diversity and provide STEM mentoring for Pre K-12 students to gain access and opportunities to learn more about the engineering community. The firm is also active in associations that increase industry awareness, engagement and equity.

“This endowment is very special as it speaks to the impact of Jesuit education and addresses a need to enhance opportunities for underrepresented groups in engineering. It was made possible by the generosity of the Coughlin Porter Lundeen donors and reflects the value of deep relationships we form at Seattle University.”

—Amit Shukla, PhD, Dean, College of Science and Engineering