Alumni Profile: Matthew Calhoun '02, Bachelor of Science, Civil Engineering

by Kathleen McCoy  |   

Things are about to come full circle for UAA engineering alumnus Matt Calhoun. From student to graduate to employee and mentor, Matt has been involved in all aspects of the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP) on UAA's campus. He's currently working on his Ph.D. at the University of Colorado at Boulder and plans to one day return to UAA to teach.

UAA civil engineering student Matt CalhounMatt grew up in Homer, but moved to Anchorage halfway through high school and earned his diploma from Dimond High School. After graduating, he enrolled in the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and was shipped across the country to New London, Connecticut for basic training.

"I still remember getting on the plane to leave with a big knot in my throat," Matt said. "I didn't have anyone to connect with. Not only was I the only Native, but I was the only Alaskan." After a short time, Matt decided the Coast Guard wasn't for him and moved back home.

Feeling a little lost, Matt visited UAA's Native Student Services to check out his options. A chance meeting with ANSEP's founder and executive director, Dr. Herb (Ilisaurri) Schroeder, changed Matt's path forever. "That one day was one of those forks in the road," Matt said. "I didn't realize it was happening at the time, but it changed my life."

Dr. Schroeder founded ANSEP in 1995 to help realize his vision of encouraging more Alaska Native students to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Matt enrolled at UAA and got involved with ANSEP, a place where Matt says he developed lifetime bonds with his classmates. "The friends that you make and the community that you build is really encouraging. We really support each other in learning and living. The people I've met through ANSEP are like family to me."

He explained that there's a strong emphasis on teaching at UAA. As an upperclassman, Matt led recitation sessions for freshmen and sophomore students in calculus, chemistry, computer programming and physics. "It really helps you learn it when you have to teach it," Matt said.

One reason that Matt chose to attend UAA is because of its proximity to several industry partners. "Every summer I had an internship relevant to civil engineering," he said. "That's not always an option for students." Matt interned with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, VECO Corporation and NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and worked for AHTNA Construction after graduation.

"I got a lot of good industry experience as a student. A lot of students want to leave the state for college, but if you're looking long term, this is the way to go."

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, Matt went to work in construction as a field engineer in Fairbanks. After working for three years in the field, he returned to UAA to start taking pre-requisites for medical school.

While taking classes, Matt got a job with ANSEP, first as a dorm RA, then as the Summer Bridge Coordinator and ultimately as the Pre-College Director. He was also presented with the opportunity to teach an Intro to Engineering course. "I thought it was going to be the worst thing ever, but I had so much fun," Matt said. He enjoyed the interaction with students so much that he decided to change direction and go back to school to become a college professor.

He earned his Master of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder in May 2010, and is now enrolled in the Ph.D. program. He said that earning his master's degree was a checkpoint on the path toward his doctoral degree, which he's scheduled to earn in May 2012. "My plan is to teach at UAA," he said. "This is where I want to be."

"Matt's experience, first as a student, and later, as staff-recruiting and nurturing the next generation of ANSEP students-not only speaks volumes about the value of the program, but makes him uniquely qualified to help ensure its sustainability," said Dr. Schroeder.

As a doctoral student, Matt conducts research, teaches courses, publishes his work and shares his research with other academics. This May, he presented his master's thesis at the American Society of Civil Engineers Construction Research Congress in Banff and took second place in the poster competition.

A true success, Matt was recently awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program scholarship. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees in the U.S. and abroad.

As a Fellow, Matt will receive three years of support, a $30,000 annual stipend, $10,500 cost-of-education allowance, and international research and professional development opportunities.

Though he's still developing his dissertation, Matt plans to look into construction safety, specifically how to improve subcontractor safety. "The fellowship will give me a lot more latitude in what I decide to study for my dissertation."

As one of ANSEP's first graduates, Matt initiated the ANSEP Alumni Scholarship Fund to build a sustainable future for ANSEP through alumni contributions. He pledged to give $1,000 annually to start the fund and challenged other ANSEP alumni to do the same.

"Now we're raising thousands annually for ANSEP scholarships to support undergraduate students," he said. "Many scholarships are supported by industry, but you can't always depend on that being there. If it can be up to the graduates that are now making money, and if they feel that this program has benefitted them, it should be no problem for them to give back."

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