Gurjot Kohli doesn’t have to look far to be reminded of the religious and professional responsibilities he bears.
His hands tell the story every day.
On his right hand, a steel bangle called a kara, an article of faith he wears as a Sikh.
“The significance of it is to provoke you into doing the right thing because whenever you're performing any task, it's always with your right hand,” Kohli said.
And on his pinky finger, a steel ring representing the order of the engineer.
“There's an interesting kind of parallel at play there,” Kohli said. “Those two articles teach me that sense of responsibility, that sense of community, that sense of transparency, care, and attention to what I'm doing.
“It's something that I've always found interesting. It doubly assures me that this is where I'm supposed to be.”
Kohli is a civil engineer for Stantec in Pasadena, California, and ASCE has honored him as a 2023 New Face of Civil Engineering. He recently spoke with Civil Engineering Source about his career.
Civil Engineering Source: What accomplishment or aspect of your career are you most proud of?
Gurjot Kohli: I'm working on a project called WaterTalks. It’s a public program designed to generate and increase community involvement in planning a sustainable water future in California. The goal is to explore strengths, opportunities, needs, and weaknesses that 128 communities in Los Angeles and Ventura counties face. So, I'm working on two water-related projects based on those issues of greatest concern.
It's really interesting, because I think it shows kind of a new path going forward for how civil engineering can be done, as opposed to the conventional traditional method of the city signing on as a client to a private consultant and coming up with a couple of predesigns and some concepts and then sharing it with the community. This kind of flips that notion on its head, and I think that that's really interesting and really leads to a better design down the road.
I like to call it community in-reach in the sense that you're kind of building yourself inside of the community and understanding their problems and trying to create solutions with their input every step of the way.
Obviously, it has its own challenges. It's not immune to having a lot of roadblocks along the way. But I feel like it acts as a paradigm shift and really brings the “civil” back into civil engineering.
Source: How do you hope to make an impact on the profession?
Kohli: I want to be known as the person who breaks down barriers between different silos. Civil engineering currently feels very segmented.
The most fruitful path going forward would be to start collaborating and building bridges between different disciplines – be it folks that work in the community, academia, policy, or regulations.
I want to be known as a catalyst for that change while trying to make sure that each project that I have worked on incrementally gets better. We should not be defaulting to a standard protocol for each design-based project and should be treating each project as a new opportunity. I want to try to lay the foundation of this mindset of engineering as an ever-growing, ever-changing, ever-expanding field, as opposed to something that's stagnating.
Source: You are the youngest of the New Face honorees this year. How have you managed to take on leadership roles this early in your career and speak your mind? Is that something that comes naturally to you or is it something you've made a conscious effort to do?
Kohli: I think it’'s a little bit of both. In terms of it coming naturally to me, I come from a family line of businesspeople. My dad, my dad’s dad, my dad’s dad’s dad – they've all been in the world of business. Although STEM is a departure from what they do, the whole nature of that industry is to be as proactive as possible and maintain commanding positions, which aligns with private engineering consulting.
As to how I've taken so many leadership roles, I've been really blessed to have access to so many great opportunities. In college, I was able to start my own club for the American Water Works Association. Also, I was able to assume some officer positions for the ASCE student chapter. And then during the pandemic, I've been able to really connect with my younger member forum, and it's been great.
I feel like you can do so much if you become more vocal, put yourself out there, and engage in things that interest you. It allows for a much richer experience – in all aspects of your life, be it personal or professional.
It’s kind of obvious, but there aren't many Sikh civil engineers. So, even though I’m still a budding young civil engineer myself, I want to be someone who other young Sikh kids could look up to. They should know that STEM fields don’t have to be limited to a select few and they don’t have to be looked at differently because of their background.
I think the confluence of all those factors and my upbringing allow me to take such action. It all coalesces into me becoming a person that seeks leadership roles and tries to give back to the community that has given me so much.