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Using engineering know-how in 'real world' not new to this senior

Most students graduate from MIT armed with theoretical knowledge that they will now begin to use in their real-life job experiences. But one student did things the other way around.

Claudia Bull, who will receive her diploma this week in civil engineering after completing coursework in December, came to the Institute after several years as a construction worker. She was doing structural steel work as a member of the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Ironworkers, which she joined after starting out as a laborer on a parking garage construction job in New Haven, CT. Having had a career before becoming a full-time student, Ms. Bull, who is in her 40s, is doubtless the only member of her class who was alive (and remembers where she was) when President Kennedy was assassinated.

Along the way, she acquired more skills in her field by getting certified as a welder, although she preferred the "adventure" of putting together the whole building to the more intricate work of welding. "You feel a little like a cowboy out there," she said. Later, Ms. Bull started taking classes in engineering at the University of New Haven to augment her practical know-how in construction. "I really wanted to know what I was talking about," she explained. "I had an instinctive knowledge, but I didn't really understand why this or that would work." She also started her own business but gave that up when she transferred to MIT, which was her biggest challenge to that point.

"It was extremely tough. I never worked so hard in my life as I have here, though it's a different kind of work," Ms. Bull said. However, she was by no means unprepared. "My practical experience helped me a lot. I did really well in labs because I knew how to build things."

Since December, she has been putting all of her skills to use as a nighttime field engineer for the Central Artery project, where she worked for the last two summers. Supervising instead of wielding tools is a new approach to construction for Ms. Bull. "I'm used to pushing things around and moving them. Now I'm getting paid to think," she observed. In Connecticut where she used to work, "I could drive by buildings and bridges and say, `that's mine and that's mine.' [As an engineer], you're a little more detached from it. It's not quite your baby any more. I still miss it sometimes."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 7, 1995.

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