building in progress

To Engineer Is Human: International Students Learn Industry and People Skills in CEM Graduate Program

August 24, 2021

Next week, Sanjana Medam, MS ’21, will start working as an estimator for Denver-based construction company Saunders. While earning her graduate degree in Construction Engineering Management (CEM), Medam also had to learn to be more assertive. Mutaz Said, MS ’21, currently works in Denver for Atkins Global, a British multinational engineering and design firm. During his time as a graduate student, Said got an education in eye contact and handshaking as well. For international students studying engineering at CU Denver, cultural differences create challenges—and opportunities.

Assistant Professor Heidi Brothers, PhD, knows a thing or two about cultural literacy. As a civil engineer who spent two years working in the United Arab Emirates, she had to get across her industry expertise while navigating considerable differences in both countries’ gender norms. In the past few years, international student enrollment has increased considerably in the College of Engineering, Design and Computing where Brothers teaches, paving the way for crosscultural communication.

Mutaz Said on site
Estimator Mutaz Said working on a construction site in Denver

Denver Draws International Students

“In some of the past years, we’ve had almost 50% international students in our CEM graduate program,” Brothers said. “We’ve worked very hard to have our students be successful, and now word is traveling. We’re starting to see an additive effect with international students, who are telling us they came here because they know someone from their home country who studied here.”

One of the reasons international students want to study at CU Denver is because of the city itself. “International students come to Denver because they have a built-in community here,” Brothers said. Some of them hope to work and settle in the U.S. “For me, moving was a goal,” Said said. “In Iraq, when we grow up, we get exposed to Hollywood movies so living in the U.S. was a dream.”

Practical Experience in the Industry

The CEM program’s industry focus is also a big draw for international students. “The program is very unique,” Medam said. “It allowed me to work for general contractors during the spring and summer semesters. I have better opportunities here.” Said found the emphasis on methods and technologies very helpful. “In the construction industry there are updates and trends every year. I learned about what’s current in the market.”

Brothers stressed the benefit of CU Denver’s industry-driven courses. “The students that return to their home countries, mostly Chinese and Saudi, make a point of saying what they really like about our program is they get practical experience.” The international students also appreciate the U.S. emphasis on worker safety. “That’s not the case in other cultures and other countries,” she said.

“What’s different in Iraq and the U.S. are the project management systems and the technology,” Said said. He also pointed out the excellent library resources in the U.S. Of course, cultural practices are also different. “The most important thing is the handshaking,” he said. “Back in the Middle East, it’s something religious and cultural. We’re not allowed to shake women’s hands. Here, it’s disrespectful for a man to not shake a woman’s hand.”

group of people on construction site
The CEM graduate programs draw many international students, including women.

Women at Work

Because the CEM program has a high percentage of women faculty and women students, it does create culture shock for some international students. “They are shocked about the number of women in our program,” Brothers said. “One of the strengths of our program is the number of women faculty. The international students, particularly the Middle Eastern students, struggle talking to women in positions of authority, but that’s OK. We change the world one individual at a time.”

Medam, who is a petite soft-spoken woman from India, appreciated the number of women in the CEM program. “It was motivating to see so many women choose this field of study, be it my fellow classmates or professors,” she said. “This industry is constantly improving the lives of people and changing the world—one building, bridge, or house at a time.”