Purdue Profiles: Martha Garcia-Saenz

February 10, 2015  

Martha Garcia-Saenz

Martha Garcia-Saenz, associate professor and program coordinator of construction management technology at Purdue North Central. (Purdue University North Central photo/Karen Prescott)
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In all aspects of her career, Martha Garcia-Saenz stands tall -- from her involvement in helping to reshape the skyline of Bogota, Colombia, to her dedication to her students and their careers.

Garcia-Saenz is associate professor and program coordinator of construction engineering and management technology at Purdue North Central. In addition to sharing with her students the insight she gained during her 20 years as a civil engineer in Colombia, she mentors and guides students who plan to enter the profession. As the founder and director of the campus' Women in Engineering and Technology Program, she is also a champion of female students who plan to enter the male-dominated field.

What is your background in civil engineering?

I have an undergraduate degree in civil engineering from La Gran Colombia University and a master's degree in civil engineering from Purdue's West Lafayette campus. Before I attended graduate school at Purdue, I worked as a civil engineer in Colombia for 20 years.

I was involved in all manner of projects, including the construction of the tallest building in Colombia at the time. I worked on the relocation of the Cudecom building; it was eight stories tall, weighed 7,000 tons and we moved it 95 feet from its original location. That project was featured in Guinness World Records for 30 years as the heaviest building moved. My last project in Colombia involved a complex of 3,000 condos that was part of the first large-scale urban renovation program in Latin America.

After I earned my master's degree, I became an assistant professor at Purdue North Central. I'm now the coordinator of the Construction Engineering and Management Technology Program; the program consists of about 150 students, two full-time faculty members, a continuing lecturer and four part-time instructors.

How do you approach teaching philosophically?

I teach a variety of construction and construction management classes, including two classes about using computer graphics in 3-D modeling for design and construction. In all my classes, my teaching philosophy is simple: everyone is a sculptor, and professionals are the products of all of the sculptors who cross their lives.

I take a lot of pride in how much our students grow. When they begin their classes, they are like raw material, and in a short period of time we help them enter society as professionals. It's my goal to leave a footprint in the students' lives so that they remember the faculty; I want to help them succeed and make their jobs and lives easier. When I hear about my students' professional accomplishments, it's extremely rewarding.

What are the details of the Women in Engineering and Technology Program?

In 2001, a female student came to my office to tell me that she was changing programs because she was the only woman in class, and she was experiencing pressure from her classmates because of her gender. She was very unhappy. At that moment, I knew I had to do something.

This issue is a very personal one for me, because as a young woman, my family initially discouraged me from pursuing civil engineering, which they thought was a man's pursuit. So, in 2001, I contacted the associate director of the Women in Engineering Program at the West Lafayette campus, and she and the program's director offered their personal support. Both came to our campus and explained their program in detail to our students, and then I founded our Women in Engineering and Technology Program.

By the time our program reached its 10-year anniversary, we'd achieved continuous improvement in the retention rates of female students studying engineering and technology. We do that by supporting our female students and introducing them to strong role models, among other things. For instance, the program offers three or four annual lunch meetings with industry speakers who have succeeded in male-dominated environments.

We also award need-based scholarships to help students who demonstrate academic excellence and who are heavily involved in the program. To keep the group members close, we also sometimes participate in community service projects.

What are your goals for the future of the Construction Engineering and Management Technology Program?

My goal is to always keep our program up to date with the industry's technology so that our students are as prepared as possible for their careers. At the same time, I want our classes to be accessible to students from all backgrounds, so we offer evening classes, because many of our students work in the construction industry during the day.

We also try to offer classes alternatingly with classes in similar programs at Purdue Calumet, in case students are taking classes on both campuses. In the end, this is going to facilitate our campuses' unification, and it's going to make sure that our students are getting the best possible education in ways that will help them better their lives and those of their family.

Writer: Amanda Hamon Kunz, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu 

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