For Dalila Ricci, the interpersonal connections are what makes engineering special.
Ricci is a fifth-year senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering and a recipient of the 2020 Alliant Energy/Erroll B. Davis, Jr. Academic Achievement Award. The awards are given each year to recognize the academic and community service of engineering and business students from traditionally underrepresented groups at UW-Madison and UW-Platteville.
Ricci is a standout student in the classroom who is also involved in several student organizations. She knew Maura McDonaugh, one of the 2019 award recipients, and looked up to her as a role model. So now, she says, it means that much more to achieve the same honor.
“I knew the caliber of people they choose for this award,” Ricci says. “I held her in such high regard. It’s really nice to be recognized beyond my circle of friends or my parents. It’s nice to know I’m making enough of an impact for the UW system to recognize me.”
As a high school junior in New Jersey, Ricci knew she wanted to study engineering in college, but wasn’t quite set on what major, or where, so she decided to apply to pre-college engineering programs at a handful of universities across the United States. Ricci watches the NCAA basketball tournament every year, and while working on college applications, she saw the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team as they made a deep run in the tournament and decided to give the school a closer look.
“People don’t really believe me when I tell them how I found out about UW,” Ricci says with a laugh. “I saw UW had a great engineering program, saw they had a pre-college program called the Engineering Summer Program run through the Diversity Affairs Office. That was the major push that got me here—being able to come here, live in the dorms and see everything that UW has to offer.”
Though Ricci began her time at UW-Madison as a materials science and engineering student, she realized that particular branch of engineering didn’t click with her after a summer research internship at Princeton University. Afterward, while talking to a friend in environmental engineering, she learned about the Construction Engineering and Management program and decided to check it out.
“People think engineering isn’t a people-oriented major,” she said. “They think you’re in labs all the time, and that’s not the experience I wanted. I wanted the interaction and personability that comes with being in engineering. With project management, you’re working on teams, you’re working on long-term projects where communication is key. I really fell in love with that idea of interpersonal communication that the program drives into you.”
Ricci transferred into civil and environmental engineering and the CEM program in the second semester of her sophomore year and, despite some initial nerves, hit the ground running. That same semester, she applied for internships and talked with professors and fellow students to find opportunities to get early hands-on experience. She worked with a firm on a big road construction project in Oconomowoc—an experience that gave her a sense of civil engineering and a chance to put what she’d learned thus far at UW-Madison into action.
She’s also worked with J.H. Findorff & Son in Madison on a project to build the Exact Sciences Discovery Campus on the city’s west side. In the summer of 2020, Ricci worked on the Pier 26 project in New York City, which opened to the public in the fall.
“Seeing that is the first thing I’m going to do when I get to go back home,” she says. “The Exact Sciences campus is a beautiful project I get to see every time I drive on the Beltline. All of these projects have been incredibly fulfilling.”
Beyond her work in the field and in the classroom, Ricci stays busy with countless activities around campus. She’s long been involved with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, first as a member, and now, to internal vice president in fall 2020.
“I’ve been mentored and get to be a mentor now,” she says. “We have this vision of underrepresented minorities succeeding in STEM, and having that ideal personified in that organization is why I’m a part of it. We’ve traveled out of the country to conferences to meet with like-minded people. That’s the organization I’m proud of because I’ve been in it since the very beginning and I’ve grown so much because of it.”
Ricci is also involved with the Wisconsin Union Directorate, serves as an events director for the Senior Year Office, and works as a tutor for her Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity scholarship, among other activities.
With graduation on the horizon in spring 2021. Ricci is turning her eye to the future. She’s already secured several job offers and is in the process of determining where she wants to live as she starts her career as a project engineer. Further down the line, she says she plans to return to school to get an MBA to round out her skillset as an engineer and business leader.
Author: Alex Holloway