University of Wisconsin Madison College of Engineering
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Emily Burris, undergraduate student at UW Madison

Emily Burris, a University of Wisconsin-Madison materials science and engineering senior, always knew she wanted to be an engineer. While on a campus tour, she could picture herself studying in Engineering Hall or sitting at the terrace. Now as a student worker for Engineering General Resources, she gives those same campus tours, with added insight, to prospective students.

Her first piece of advice to new students? Get involved with something you’re passionate about.

Burris was very active in high school in Vadnais Heights, Minnesota. She ran track, played Frisbee and sang in the choir, among other things. It was only natural that the first thing she did as a UW-Madison freshman was join a student organization, and she decided to start with Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

“Joining EWB made the campus a lot smaller,” she says. “Not only did I meet upperclassmen to help me with class advice, but I met some of my best friends.”

EWB is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping disadvantaged communities around the world. The UW-Madison chapter works on projects in Kenya, Rwanda, Haiti, El Salvador and Red Cliff, Wisconsin.

As a general member, Burris dove right into the group’s Rwanda project, learning about the country’s past social history. In high school, she spent a large amount of time learning about the world’s social problems but never how to fix them. In January 2010, Burris traveled to Rwanda with EWB and saw firsthand the impact engineers can make.

In Rwanda, known as the land of a thousand mountains, Burris spearheaded an agricultural project to help organize workshops to promote better agricultural practices. Burris says that just four months after the workshop, their bean crop yield increased by 50 percent.

Burris says that trips and projects through EWB allowed her to “try-on” engineering. “Most engineering students only get to practice design and implementation in their freshman intro or senior design class,” she says. “But that’s what EWB does everyday by providing inspiring, real-world engineering projects.”

As a sophomore, she took on more responsibility as the EWB events and publicity coordinator. This fall, she will increase her involvement and begin her term as president.

Growing up in a medical household—her father is a doctor, her mother is a nurse and her sister is a pharmacist—Burris was always interested in biology and math. She chose engineering and, specifically, materials science, to combine these interests and prepare her for a career developing biocompatible devices, such as heart stents. An extra perk to completing her major in a small department, Burris says, is that all of her professors know her personally.

In addition to school, work and EWB, Burris participates in Ultimate Frisbee and Young Scientists of America. However, of all the decisions she made so far as an undergraduate, Burris says joining EWB was the best.

“Studying engineering is hard, but I know that just because I struggled on an exam, it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be a great engineer,” she says. “EWB reminds me why I’m here.”

Learn more about engineering student organizations through the Student Leadership Center.