When Mayra Rodriguez was growing up, her family and teachers could tell early on she’d be defined by her persistence. The oldest of two siblings and the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Argentina, she was always good at setting goals and exceeding them. For example, when Rodriquez was enrolled in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes when she began school in Miami, she stubbornly committed to speaking only English to communicate clearly to her teachers that she was fluent enough to move on.
This determination carried her through high school, where she excelled at math and science, and catapulted her past a major milestone: becoming first in her family to go to college. Applying through Questbridge, a national nonprofit that connects the nation’s youth with leading colleges, she was a finalist for University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering and committed to a big move across the country to continue her studies.
Though she hadn’t formally experimented with engineering as a kid, it was her father’s experiences, first as a mechanic and later as a home renovator, that guided her interest in civil engineering—specifically building sciences, which is her emphasis at the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
“So my whole childhood, my father would always take things apart and put them back together, or build an engine from scratch so seeing him do that fascinated me,” Rodriguez said.
Growing up in Miami, her fascination with buildings fell upon those her father worked on. “My parents would get a property in really poor condition and renovate it,” she said. “My dad did the actual renovation work himself, which is what got me into the construction aspect of things.”
But it was in Los Angeles that Rodriguez discovered her favorite buildings. As an intern at a general contractor in downtown Los Angeles this past summer, she passes breathtaking relics like the Eastern Building constantly and always takes pause to admire them.
“It’s a big blue, old building—one of a bunch of historic landmark buildings along Broadway. It’s the art deco style for me—the attention to detail that they put into things and how it was built so long ago but has even better structure than buildings built now, which are put together cheaply and quickly,” she said. “They don’t have that long-term quality anymore and that kind of fascinates me.”
At internships at DPR Construction and Turner Construction, Rodriguez served essentially as a construction manager, overseeing the day-to-day of all the different components that go into creating a building. “We oversee all these different trades—the electrician, plumber, mechanical engineers, dry waller. Meeting with everyone, it combines everything I’ve learned and ties it all together,” she said.
Rodriguez likes being the one to make sure that the building is put together according to plan. This requires more than engineering skill, of course, but an ability to work with many different types of people. “You have to be able to understand what’s going on and be a mass communicator,” she said. At times, she noted, this also means proving herself as a woman in a male-dominated field.
“The most challenging part is trying to know everything about all the different aspects of constructing a building,” she said. “While people are often more than willing to explain it to you if you ask, especially being a woman, you don’t really get treated with the same respect. You have to earn that respect and once you do, they’re like ‘She actually knows what she’s talking about, I’m going to start listening.”
Ultimately, Rodriguez sees her passion for construction as a way to make an impact. As of 2019, the global construction industry accounts for 38% of carbon emissions—an increase to its highest level yet—according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
“The construction sector is the number one contributor to carbon emissions,” she said, “I want to reach a level where I can decide which projects to chase after, choosing ones that are more sustainable—those that are “net zero” or produce the same amount of energy they consume.
Rodriguez’ recently awarded academic scholarship from National Academy of Construction is helping her pursue her passions by allowing her to focus on these goals.
“When my parents first came to the U.S., they didn’t speak any English and we were low income. Even though we’re doing much better now, paying rent and affording textbooks is always going to be a concern in the back of my mind. This $2,500 scholarship relieves the stress a bit, so I can focus on what I care about.”
As for what she’s looking forward to this fall, Rodriguez continues to appreciate campus life and eagerly anticipates its return. “I just want to see my classmates in person and actually interact with my professors, forming those relationships that last a lifetime.”