At age 12, Emily Wren decided she wanted to become a construction worker. “I’ve always been fascinated by the process of creation and building things,” she recalls, “and I have always liked being able to do things with my hands." She got her first taste of construction work in high school, renovating houses for Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit organization that uses volunteers to build affordable housing for poor and homeless families.
Taking Math and Science and Making It Real
A summer internship at a cutting-edge technology firm introduced her to engineering, and Emily became intrigued with “the whole process of thinking of something in your mind or on paper and then being able to create it in real life.” She discovered how intensely concrete and hands-on engineering was, and loved the “idea of taking math and science and making it real. I was never drawn to being a physics major or a math major, because engineering seemed so much more practical.”
Helping Out in Times of Disaster
Majoring in civil engineering at Duke University provided Emily not only with lots of practical training but with some of the most moving experiences of her life. As a member of the student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, she was able “to see the hands-on benefits of what engineering could do for the lives of people around the world." Emily and four fellow students traveled to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to help rebuild shrimp hatcheries in a village that had been destroyed after the disastrous December 2004 tsunami struck Asia.
The EWB team also traveled to Papua, Indonesia, where they developed a solution to prevent the erosion of a riverbank that had been endangering a nearby community. Back home, Emily and her classmates spent a spring break in New Orleans, clearing out houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
A Whole New Direction
In her senior year, Emily was considering various career options, when “out of the blue I got a couple of recruiting e-mails from top consulting firms.” She then learned that businesses “heavily recruit engineers because of their strong analytical training . . . [businesses] realize the value of having someone who’s been rigorously trained to think.” She accepted a job with a global-strategy consulting firm, and says, “the easiest way to understand what we do is to think of any major decision a CEO would have to make—we would help him or her make that decision.” In Emily’s first year, she’s worked on projects involving a health care company, a paper factory, and a charity. “For someone who is interested in a lot of different things and always looking for a change, it’s a very attractive job to have.”
Engineering has been the ideal preparation for Emily’s many pursuits, from helping people devastated by disaster to negotiating with Fortune 500 companies. She loves the perspective it’s given her: “Engineering opens doors to all sorts of things because it teaches you a structured and objective way to think about the world, so that you understand first how things work, and then you can expand, improve, or fix them.”