October 2022 Centennial Engineer of the Month

October 2022 – Matthew K Swenty, PhD, PE, M.ASCE

Matthew (Matt) Swenty obtained his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Civil Engineering from Missouri S&T and then worked as a bridge designer at the Missouri Department of Transportation. He returned to school to obtain his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech followed by research work at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center on concrete bridges.  He is currently the Jackson-Hope Professor of Civil Engineering at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).   He teaches engineering mechanics, structural engineering, and introduction to engineering courses at VMI and enjoys working with the students on bridge related research projects and the ASCE student chapter. 

Centennial EOM Questionnaire

Question 1. What do you consider your major achievements in civil engineering in our Section area?

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the Virginia Military Institute ASCE student chapter over the past decade.  Working with students is both a joy and challenge.  Watching them as they begin to grow as professionals is very fulfilling.  We have had the opportunity to compete in student competitions, attend leadership conferences, and interact with other engineering professionals.  Every year is a little different just like every student is a little different.  But the process of teaching and mentoring them professionally is important for each unique individual.  It is fun to watch as students interact with one another, design projects, present results, attend professional meetings, network, and ultimately graduate.  One of my greatest rewards is getting a phone call or letter from a former student and hearing about how they are doing.  People are ultimately the most important aspect of this profession and I really value my current and former students.     

Question 2. Why did you decide on a career in civil engineering?

I grew up in a community near an engineering school, so I heard about engineering from a young age.  I loved problem solving, math, and science, so engineering was a natural fit.  My dad is also a civil engineer and certainly had the biggest influence on my decision to become an engineer.  Becoming a civil engineer was a long process. I investigated over a dozen engineering fields during my undergraduate education and, honestly, struggled to pick one.  Eventually it came down to how much I enjoyed the diversity of civil engineering and the opportunities to serve the public.  I still remember seeing two different ASCE signs that said “We build the quality of life.”   That always struct me as something bigger and more important that allowed an individual to give back to society.  I certainly enjoy the problem solving aspects of this profession, the ability to earn a good living, and the people I have met.  But the part that makes civil engineering unique is the opportunity we have to serve others through our work.

Question 3. Provide some career guidance for young civil engineers.

Pick a career path that fulfills your passions and interests.  Don’t pick a job or profession just because of money or expectations from others.  Keep your options open and explore every opportunity you can.  As a student get involved in outside activities and network.  ASCE has certainly helped me do that throughout my career.  Ask other engineers and your professors as many questions as you can.  Upon graduation try to find a job that both interests you, but also has a good work environment.  Working with great people has been the most important aspect of every job I have had.  It doesn’t matter how much money you are making or how exciting the work may be, the people you work with will make or break your job.  Throughout your career, but particularly early on, don’t be afraid to ask questions and search for mentors.  There is so much we can learn from one another throughout our careers. 

Question 4. What do you consider the major challenge to a career in civil engineering?

Early in my career one of my biggest personal challenges was trying to pick an area of civil engineering to focus on.  I came to love structural engineering, but I certainly enjoyed many other aspects of civil engineering.  My environmental classes in college were fascinating as was geotechnical engineering and even the soft sides of engineering like public policy and technical writing.  I wanted to do it all!

On a broader scale, one of the bigger challenges for civil engineers and the profession is communication.  Much of our work is behind the scenes and focuses on aspects of the infrastructure that people either don’t realize exist or take for granted.  We do not tend to be in the spotlight very often and most of us prefer that.  I think our natural tendencies are to fix the problem as quickly as possible and help people, which is a great thing.  In the process I think we forget to explain and communicate to the public what we are doing.  Keeping the public’s trust and educating them on the importance of the infrastructure is one of the hardest things that each of us must do as a member of this profession.   We want to educate those in the community around us about how we can all work together to improve our quality of life and build a safer world for generations to come.   

Question 5. Tell us about your volunteer activities. What is the motivating factor for volunteering? How has being a volunteer enriched your professional career?

Volunteering is one of the most fulfilling aspects of life whether in a church youth group, a community organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters, an afterschool program for kids, or local government.  I honestly think we were all created to work together, give back to those around us, and lead in times of need.  I feel I must share and use whatever God given resources I have for others around me.  I try to remind myself each day it isn’t about me.  There is no way I would be were I am today without the help and assistance of my parents, family, friends, colleagues, community members, and educators.  Volunteering is a natural way to give back especially to those that may be different than you or not have all of the resources you have. 

Civil Engineering has provided some very unique volunteering opportunities throughout my career. I have focused a lot on K-12 education.  When I was in college both the ASCE and Chi Epsilon chapters at my school volunteered in local science, math, and engineering programs.  I helped with Mathcounts and a transportation camp for high school students.  My wife is a middle and high school science teacher, so that has also brought many opportunities to be a guest speaker and work with science clubs.  In recent years the VMI student chapter has been involved in outreach at the local schools.  We help teach students about engineering, provide some fun design-build opportunities, and generally have a lot of fun.  Volunteering may be hard work, but it’s a valuable investment.  You will always get back more than you put into it.