"Good News" is a regular feature on ASCE’s Civil Engineering Source, highlighting positive, inspiring stories happening every day around the civil engineering profession.
You can probably picture the scene.
It’s a balmy evening in Southern California, and two 20-somethings – recent college grads – invite friends over to their apartment to hang out.
The voices are loud, the music even louder. There are red Solo cups. An impromptu dance contest breaks out in the living room.
Nothing outside of the ordinary summer fun here.
Except … as late Saturday night turns to early Sunday morning at this apartment party, look in the kitchen.
Our protagonists – the 20-something hosts – are standing next to each other at the kitchen counter, deep in conversation, talking quickly when they get excited, moving and waving their hands when they want to emphasize a certain point.
What could they be talking about with such passion while the 1 a.m. party chaos rages around them?
ASCE, of course.
They’re comparing committee notes, planning outreach events, and geeking out about sustainable infrastructure.
The ASCE obsessives at the center of our little trip back in time to 2015 Orange County are Liz Ruedas and Isamar Escobar, and they have never quite been typical, even when they’re throwing parties.
“We were talking ASCE all day, every day – even long nights,” Ruedas remembered, laughing.
Nearly a decade later, the now former roommates remain best friends, civil engineering nerds, and are two of the youngest members to ever serve on the ASCE Board of Direction.
A seat at the table
ASCE installed Ruedas onto the board of direction as an at-large director in October 2020. She was 28 at the time.
“It was definitely challenging,” said Ruedas, P.E., QSD, M.ASCE, who works as a surface water project manager for Michael Baker International in Santa Ana, California. “When we join the board, we’re not just representing one interest group. We’re here to make decisions that improve the entire Society and the public. At the same time, I want to honor that younger member perspective in all my comments and votes. So it’s a constant battle.
“As an at-large director you’re bringing a unique perspective to potentially fill a void that’s been identified on the board, so there is that permission to bring in that younger member perspective. Every single initiative that the board takes on impacts our student and younger members, so I found that over the last few years, it was easy for me to be passionate about every item discussed. Whether we were talking about K-12 outreach, certifications, credentials, or standards of practice on sustainable infrastructure, all these things impact our profession and our daily lives.”
It’s a perspective the board lacked for most of this century – Ruedas is believed to be just the second younger member to serve since the Society switched from zones to regions two decades ago.
It’s also a responsibility that Ruedas, Escobar, and many ASCE younger members advocated for years to earn. Their efforts paid off in early 2020 when the ASCE Board of Direction approved changes to Society bylaws that allowed the younger member councils to nominate a younger member for at-large director (a position that serves on the board) and required at least one younger member to serve on the At-Large Director Nominating Committee.
So when Ruedas’ three-year term on the board ended last fall, the person selected to follow her as at-large director was another younger member and someone Ruedas knew very well.
“It’s like follow-the-leader,” said Escobar, A.M.ASCE, who now works as a civil engineer in highway construction for the Federal Highway Administration based in Vancouver, Washington. She joined the board last fall at the age of 30.
“I have incredibly big shoes to fill, following Liz. The only reason I’m here is because she advocated for this for so long to get younger member and student perspectives at the table.
“I’m very excited to see how I’m able to take a little bit of Liz’s energy and use it in my own way to help grow younger member voices in our Society. I think our voice should not only be heard but incorporated into ASCE’s strategic goals.”
The odd couple
The connection for Ruedas and Escobar dates back to before ASCE and even before the Orange County apartment days. The two met as undergraduate civil engineering students at UC–Irvine. The two were on the same student design team.
“We were both in each other’s orbit,” Escobar said. “Unknowingly, though. It’s not like we were doing it on purpose. It just kind of happened.”
Their friendship truly solidified on the ASCE Orange County Younger Member Forum. They planned social events together and joined committees. They traveled to the ASCE Legislative Fly-In together in Washington, D.C., in 2018, and hung out in Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day on the way home. Event after event, year after year.
“It’s been such a fun adventure together,” Ruedas said.
Considering that the two friends have so many common threads through their life stories and careers, it’s funny to note that they are an odd couple of sorts. Ruedas is the classic extrovert, while Escobar is more of an introvert.
“She has this incredible ability to speak her mind when it’s needed. I tend to wait a little while,” Escobar said.
“I think Liz and I have very similar goals but very different personalities. We are both incredibly passionate. We want the same things and believe the same things, especially for this organization.”
Ruedas agreed that they perhaps take different routes to the same outcome.
“There are so many strengths associated with being an introvert in our industry; and so many strengths associated with being an extrovert,” Ruedas said. “I think we are both able to capitalize on who we are authentically and contribute in meaningful ways.”
Ruedas’ and Escobar’s combined six-year run on the ASCE Board of Direction coincides with a youth movement seen across the entire industry. As millennials hit their 30s – and the civil engineering profession faces a workforce shortage – they are rising en masse to more leadership positions.
“I definitely think our industry is feeling that,” Escobar said. “There is an entire generation of engineers who are retiring. So, it’s fortunately and unfortunately allowing this young generation of engineers to step up into these important positions. I say fortunately and unfortunately because it’s fortunate for their careers and their growth, but it’s also unfortunate because there have not necessarily been systems set up to allow them to successfully enter into these positions. But we’re figuring it out. There are so many young engineers that are doing amazing things at what most would consider young ages.”
Ruedas said she’s also seen a cultural shift in the profession recently.
“I think in the past, you have had to serve in a certain role in your company for X number of years before you were even considered for that next promotion,” Ruedas said. “But now, at least in the department that I’m in, I’m seeing that we’re celebrating achievement. Not just on the technical side or how many projects you’re bringing in, but with leadership skills. The folks who are going above and beyond and really investing in that leadership development through various professional organizations are now seen as someone who is ready for that next jump; not simply because they’ve been with the company for a long time but because of their skills.”
The increased responsibility for younger engineers means increased influence on the industry, which makes Ruedas’ and Escobar’s contributions to the ASCE Board of Direction all the more crucial for keeping the Society apace with the changing landscape.
“I know ASCE is moving in a positive direction that is responsive to societal changes and well-positioned for the future when we have members of Liz and Isamar’s caliber serving on our board of direction,” said ASCE President Marsia Geldert-Murphey, who has long been a champion of younger members.
“Liz was and Isamar is now always one of the most prepared and knowledgeable board members. Every ASCE member should be proud of Liz and Isamar for being the incredibly capable, compassionate, and strong leaders they are.
“I know I am very proud and grateful for their service to our profession.”
Learn more about resources ASCE has for younger members.