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My year in Arizona: travelling, tug-of-war, and... Imperial units

23 January 2019

Serena Gough, fourth-year student and QUEST Undergraduate Scholar, reports back on an exciting transatlantic year of developing knowledge, in the classroom and through her volunteering and working roles.

My year in Arizona: travelling, tug-of-war, and... Imperial units
Serena Gough at the Grand Canyon. Image credit: Serena Gough

Last year, I studied abroad at the University of Arizona in Tucson in the USA as part of my MEng civil engineering course.

The Civil Engineering department was considerably smaller than at my university - the University of Nottingham – but I found the teaching style in America suited me well.

They have weekly homework for each subject, as well as several midterm exams and a final. I found that this continual learning consolidates the information, making it easier to remember for the final exam.

I also became acquainted with American standards and Imperial units, which I had previously never used.

An American adventure

My year studying abroad was a great opportunity to do some travelling, exploring the region and indulging in one of my passions – photography.

While there, I visited Scottsdale, Wickenberg, Williams, Flagstaff, Sedona, Jerome and the Grand Canyon during a tour in January 2018. I also visited San Diego for Thanksgiving and Los Angeles and Las Vegas during Spring Break.

Living in Arizona for an academic year was daunting at first, but definitely worth it.

I improved my volleyball skills while out there, playing weekly games with fellow civil engineering students on the outdoor sand court at the Campus Recreation Centre.

Living abroad also made me more independent and self-sufficient - especially when the time difference means you can’t just pick up the phone to chat to friends and family back in the UK!

Forming great connections

One of the best things about being over there was making great friendships and connections with the students and lecturers.

I got involved in numerous social activities over the year. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Pacific South West Conference, at which I competed for the University of Arizona in surveying, tug of war and a scavenger hunt, all of which were a lot of fun!

The conference was held at Arizona State University and was attended by civil engineering students from 18 universities in the region.

I also got really involved in the ASCE Student Chapter, attending fortnightly meetings with different industry speakers, and socials. I went to Institution of Transportation Engineers meetings, too, and did a site visit to the new Raytheon building on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona.

My Network Rail placement

Back in the UK, in May 2018, I began my summer placement with my QUEST sponsor company, Network Rail, based between its Birmingham and Manchester offices.

I worked within the Geotech Asset Management and Infrastructure Projects Central Renewals teams, getting the opportunity to see how larger rail projects are managed and implemented.

I also got to go on site visits to some major active works.

Serena on a site visit at the Meadow Lane Bridge reconstruction. Image credit: Serena Gough
Serena on a site visit at the Meadow Lane Bridge reconstruction. Image credit: Serena Gough

Getting young people to consider STEM

At the beginning of the placement I was asked if I’d like to take part in an event in London called Fast Trackers, which aimed to encourage 16 to 18-year-olds from areas with a low uptake at university to consider STEM subjects at higher education.

I said 'yes', and the event was really enjoyable.

During the first day, I led students on a tour of London St Pancras Station and London Bridge Station, answering their questions.

After this, the students visited ICE’s HQ at One Great George Street to see the Invisible Superheroes exhibition and learn about ICE and all it has to offer, including QUEST.

They then visited the IMechE (Institution of Mechanical Engineers), where they attended a panel discussion and dinner.

On the second day, the students took on a design challenge.

Half were focussed on choosing a high-speed rail route from London to Birmingham. The other half redesigned London Euston Station to accommodate the new high-speed lines. I helped the groups with ideas and ensured they were all on track to complete the activity on time.

Back at Nottingham University

Back in Nottingham this year, university has been going very well.

I’m volunteering as education representative for my department – giving me the opportunity to shape the teaching of civil engineering at the university – and I was honoured to be awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s Medal for outstanding achievement.

Serena was awarded a medal for outstanding achievement at university. Image credit: Serena Gough
Serena was awarded a medal for outstanding achievement at university. Image credit: Serena Gough

While I was in America, I continued as social media secretary for the ICE East Midlands Graduates and Students Committee.

I’m increasing my involvement with ICE this year as GSNet (Graduates and Students Network) representative for the region, attending national meetings discussing issues relating to my peers and ensuring students' voices are heard.

As a result of my involvement with the committee, I was asked to judge the Medium Projects category for the ICE East Midlands Merit Awards and attended the Gala Dinner at the Roundhouse in Derby.

Future plans

After studying a railway engineering module, as it linked to my experience at Network Rail, I’m preparing to carry out research for my final-year project, 'A critical evaluation of transport integration in Nottingham'.

I’ve begun by scouring the university library for anything that might be relevant and set out areas to consider with my tutor. I’m still deciding how to capture original data, either through surveys or by analysing journey information of people in Nottingham.

Apply for an undergraduate QUEST scholarship

Applications for QUEST Undergraduate Scholarships open in April 2019 for anyone applying to study civil engineering at a UK university beginning in autumn 2019.

  • Serena Gough, senior engineer at Arcadis