2024 New Faces Alyssa Sooklal

About 2024 New Faces Alyssa Sooklal

There’s a feeling Alyssa Sooklal gets when she looks at all that she’s accomplished – dean’s list student at Johns Hopkins, professionally licensed engineer, multiple “Engineer of the Year” awards from different organizations, on and on.

It’s pride, of course, but there’s also a deep gratitude. 

Sooklal is a first-generation American. Her parents emigrated from the Caribbean nation Trinidad and Tobago to the Baltimore area just before she was born. And the life they built in the United States wasn’t easy. Her father worked a minimum-wage job for a furniture company and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. But their efforts set Sooklal and her siblings up for the professional success they now enjoy.

“I think if my parents had been given the chance, particularly my dad, they would have also been very gifted professionals,” Sooklal said. “They were not given that opportunity in Trinidad. The reality is, for a lot of immigrants, that there are a lot of brilliant people who just were not dealt a good hand in life and could not express their talent through their intelligence. So I guess I live for my parents and let them live through me in a sense.”

Sooklal is a water resources engineer for McCormick Taylor Inc. in Baltimore, president of the ASCE Maryland Younger Member Group, and maintains a volunteer schedule of seemingly 100 events a week in 20 different places. ASCE has honored her as a 2024 New Faces of Civil Engineering honoree.

If these are opportunities her parents didn’t have, it’s almost as though every step Sooklal takes in her career is a rewriting of an alternate history for her family.

“My dad is no longer with us on Earth, but he was always one of my biggest cheerleaders and I know he would be proud of where I am today if he were here,” Sooklal said. “He was very similar to me in terms of curiosity and interest in science. 

“And I found civil engineering on my own. But looking back, it’s neat to say, ‘Well, he liked science and liked to figure out how things worked.’ I think sometimes about how this is possibly what he might have wanted to do if he had had that opportunity.

“I definitely think I’ve ended up on the right path.”

Sooklal recently spoke to Civil Engineering Source about her career.

Sooklal inspecting a stormwater management pond in Maryland.

Civil Engineering Source: What’s the accomplishment or aspect of your career that you’re most proud of so far?

Alyssa Sooklal: One of the things that I’m most proud of in my career as a water resources engineer would be passing the P.E. exam. That’s a huge milestone for any civil engineer but becoming a professionally licensed engineer means a lot more to me than even the average civil engineer.

I’m the first licensed professional in my family, and my siblings and I are the first people on either side of my family to graduate at a university level.

So that’s the first reason why becoming a professionally licensed engineer is really, really important to me; the second reason is that I had the unfortunate displeasure of taking the P.E. exam twice.

I didn’t have the most straightforward path to civil engineering. I went to Johns Hopkins University, which is a great school, and I studied environmental engineering. And at Hopkins, civil engineering and environmental engineering are two completely separate programs in two completely different departments.

There was enough overlap for me to successfully transition into water resources engineering as a profession. But when it came time to take the P.E. exam, I found that I really struggled with the disciplines that I’d never studied in college. Topics such as structural, transportation, or soils are much more civil-engineering-focused and less environmental-engineering-focused.

I struggled so hard the first time I took the exam, and it was really heartbreaking. Nobody expected me not to pass. I’m a good student. I went to a good school. I’m fairly good at picking things up the first time, and so it really shocked everyone, myself included.

I decided to retake the exam as quickly as possible – and at that point, the exam switched to computer-based testing. So I retook the exam in May 2022, and I passed and found that those extra months really helped solidify the topics that I hadn’t previously seen.

And I like to tell that story because it’s an example of the resiliency that I found to be a theme in my life. I’ve since become the committee chair of the Professional Objectives Committee for the ASCE Maryland Section. I help put together the prep panels for the P.E. and F.E. exams. And I work directly with students and young professionals to help them pass those exams. So it’s all come full circle for me.

Source: You mentioned resiliency as a common theme throughout your life. Can you talk more about other times you’ve needed to show resiliency?

Sooklal: Yes, absolutely. My parents came from Trinidad, two uneducated, lower-class individuals. They worked minimum-wage jobs. They didn’t have much in Trinidad; they had even less here in the United States.

So, for me, I lived in this socioeconomic class my entire life. I’ve lived in that, almost like, survival mode my entire childhood.

I knew that if I didn’t get a good education get into a good university and get a good job, I wouldn’t have a safety net. I wouldn’t have anyone to fall back on. There wouldn’t be a trust fund or my parents’ connections or anything like that to catch me. I couldn’t have the same comfort level or safety level that some people have when they go to university and they’re able to relax a little bit more and maybe do more fun things.

That’s all I’ve ever known – just being in that survival mode and having to continuously pick myself back up.

I’d have to think, “Oh, I didn’t do well on this exam,” and then, “I might not get an A in this class,” to “My GPA is going to drop and maybe I won’t get into a good university,” to “Maybe employers won’t like that.” There were a lot of different domino effects in my brain.

Thoughts like that would come with any small little thing that another person might just pass on by. But for me, every decision and every grade, every extracurricular, every club, every single part of my life meant so much, because I knew I didn’t have that safety net. Growing up in the life that I grew up in, that was evident to me.

And then I went to Johns Hopkins, where it’s filled with amazing, smart, and well-off people. So, throughout my life, there were so many periods of, “Well, I have to face this myself. I have to pick myself back up. I have to boost myself up. I have to motivate myself because I know I will not have a backup plan if I can’t do that for myself.”

And I look back at my childhood and my younger adulthood where I wasn’t as maybe secure as I am now, and resiliency is just the word I can come up with for myself.

Source: Do you feel like you’ve finally outrun those pressures chasing you? Or do you still feel that worry that the bottom might fall out any minute?

Sooklal: Well, you know what’s funny? I actually had this conversation not too long ago with my manager and director. They have monthly leadership coaching meetings with me. And the director pointed this out to me, “Alyssa, you’re still in survival mode.”

And I didn’t realize that was apparent to other people until he said that. I am thinking, “Wow, I’m so much more financially secure than my parents ever were. I can take care of myself. I provide for my family in Trinidad too, and I just feel so much more at ease than when I was growing up. But at the same time, when he said that, I could see it. I could see that I’m kind of still in survival mode that I have to do better, I have to be better. It’s that anxiety and worry that came from early on.

And there’s nothing wrong with trying to better yourself at any point in your career. But, no, I don’t think I have outrun that feeling of survival mode. I am much more stable in some ways. But the anxiety and worry are still there.

Source: What kind of impact do you hope to make on the profession?

Sooklal: I want to be able to inspire other young women of color who want to be a civil engineer to follow their career dreams and not let anything stand in their way or slow them down.

It’s important to me to be a role model for these kinds of people, especially young women of color. Most women of color, whether of South Asian descent like myself or other ethnicities, have been molded since birth to fit in a specific box. That box being: diminutive and shy, out of the way, never causing ripples, not speaking up, and prioritizing everything and everyone else over herself.

That’s something that I certainly grew up with in my family. And I’ve seen in my other friends of similar ethnicities that it’s really hard to speak up sometimes and to just see yourself in some of these roles.

There’s a statistic floating around that I believe it’s less than 10% of women in upper leadership across the professional world are women of color. Less than 10%? I’d like to be able to show young women that you can rise as far as you want to.

A young woman of color – a recent civil engineering graduate – told me that she greatly looked up to me as the only female licensed engineer she’d ever met. She told me she’d really admired how I carried myself and how I stood up for myself in a professional manner.

I was really floored to hear this, because I didn’t necessarily see myself in that way, particularly someone that other people looked up to in this regard – someone who stands up for herself and conducts herself professionally.

But I thought about it. I do. I try not to let people push me around. I try to stick up for myself, and I’m always trying to pick myself back up and seek out more opportunities.

And so her observations really, really meant something to me and showed me that I should be that role model. I hope that I can be a figure that people can look up to me like this young woman who shared this nice observation with me recently.

I hope that I can be like how she sees me. I hope that others can see me in that way too.