Alumna Spotlight: Michele O’Connor ENG‘87

“My Rutgers education was really hands-on and provided me with a great foundation upon which I could grow as a civil engineer. Without those basics, I’d never have been able to do it.” – Michele O’Connor

Michele O’Connor began her career at Langan Engineering and Environmental Services as a civil engineer at the senior staff level. For the past ten years, as a firm principal, she has been co-managing the site/civil practice from the firm’s New York City office and has served as lead engineer on projects such as the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport and the Gateway Center at Bronx Terminal Market . A 2018 CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women) New York Founder’s Award Winner, she is also a co-founder of the Women@Langan firm-wide mentoring group. Equally passionate about Rutgers SoE, O’Connor serves as a co-chair of the school’s Industry Advisory Board and has sat on a campus panel at a recruitment event for admitted women students. She is a generous supporter of the SoE Alumni-Industry Scholars program.

Where did you grow up?

I’m from Bergen County and am living back in the same community where I went to high school.

What made you decide on Rutgers and engineering?

I didn’t have an engineer in my family, or strong academic role models to draw on. But I did have a strong community of friends in my high school math and science classes. When a core group of them was applying to engineering schools, I thought if they are, I will too. As it turns out, I was the only one of this core group of friends who got a degree in engineering.

What are some highlights of your Rutgers experience?

In my junior year, I had an opportunity to study at City, University of London. I strongly recommend studying in an environment with a different culture where there is opportunity for independence, but with the security of the safety net of a university setting.

Did you experience any obstacles as a woman engineering student?

No. In my civil engineering class of about 40 people, I think around ten were women – which is comparable to statistics today.

Mentoring is important to you. How were you mentored?

I was always very fortunate to have immediate supervisors, such as George Derrick, a Langan founder, who were very interested in my career and development, provided me with opportunities – and remained connected with me.

It is very important, especially for women, to have a mentor who can follow you through your career as an advocate and sponsor when it’s time to advance to more senior positions.

What motivated you to co-found Women@Langan?

A few years back at an internal training at Langan, I was chatting at lunch with women colleagues from our Miami and Philadelphia offices. As leaders at Langan, we found that women often came to us for help. I realized that while many of my mentors had been men, I was, in fact, a role model to so many women within the company. That was my motivation.

We celebrated our third anniversary last September of providing women within Langan with a community and atmosphere in which they can achieve personal and career success. The success we’ve seen has been remarkable: in the first year alone, there were more than 150 events throughout the firm. It has been immensely rewarding.

How have you supported the SoE Alumni-Industry Scholars Program?

My support is mostly on the giving level, although over the years I have come and met with students in campus organizations like SWE (Society of Women Engineers). I’d love to engage more with the students in this program.  To me, the program is so important because it obligates its scholarship recipients to maintain a connection with the school and give back – which is an important lesson to learn early on.

Are you excited about the new Langan Geo-Environmental Engineering Lab?

I’m really excited about it. I love Weeks Hall – the building is fantastic. I’m proud that Langan wanted to be a name donor, but we’re making a concerted effort to make it more than just a philanthropic action by engaging directly with faculty and students. I recently planned a little gathering with fellow alumni and Langan managing principal and board chairman Andy Ciancia for our employees to see the space and meet with faculty and students.

Were you involved with Hudson Yards redevelopment?

It was a huge project for the firm. My involvement was more in a support role, but it was a project that required being on site. Construction went around the clock, including on nights and weekends. In order to avoid staff burn out, we solicited the support of all engineers in the office to work in rotation.

I had the opportunity to do the inspections of the foundation caissons and even have a memento of a piece of granite from the site.

What attracted you to this kind of work?

Within the civil and environmental engineering field, I’m more on the civil side. It’s more hands-on to me. Working with a team that starts with an undeveloped greenfield site or dilapidated urban area and ends up with something you can physically see and enjoy is extremely gratifying. There is something powerful about seeing a space where people can live and work in and knowing I made a mark on the land.

What do you value most about your Rutgers education?

For me the value was that it was really hands-on and provided me with a great foundation upon which I could go out and grow as a civil engineer. Without those basics, I’d never have been able to do it. Rutgers gave me a strong, solid rounded education, which is extremely important to me as a civil engineer.

What advice do you wish you’d had as a student?

Overall, I think I would have liked someone to tell me to pursue and accept as many opportunities as you can. When you’re a student, four years seems like forever – but looking back, it’s a blip. Seize all the opportunities that come your way that provide learning experiences outside of the classroom – and don’t be afraid to take a risk on something you think you might not have the skills for.

What did you do for fun as a student?

I did everything all students did. I had a large network of friends. We went to fraternities, went into the city, and studied.

What do you do for fun now?

I love to travel. I’ve recently been to Africa and the Middle East and have traveled extensively in Europe. Closer to home, I love gardening and being outdoors. I enjoy hiking. I also love to cook. I don’t follow recipes, but I like to try and replicate things I tasted on my travels.

Where would you like to go on your next vacation?

One of my goals is to see the Aurora Borealis, so I’d like to go to Iceland, or Scandinavia or the Shetland Islands. I’d also like to return to Africa. I spent five days in the Serengeti and it was an unbelievable, life-changing experience, though safari life is not for the faint of heart.

As an engineer, I’m inspired as I think about the second phase of my career. I’d love to return to Africa and help to improve water systems, water delivery, and water treatment – an area where there are a lot of opportunities.