Alumni Spotlight: Erica (Sunny) Mullen ENG'11

“Rutgers really prepared me to be an engineer. It provided a strong foundation and the necessary resources for me to build on. For that, I am forever thankful.” – Sunny Mullen 

Sunny Mullen graduated from the School of Engineering in 2011 with a degree in civil engineering. She worked as a design engineer, project engineer, and project manager for several companies before becoming a project manager for Alfred Benesch & Company, where she had been a student intern. At Benesch, she leads project teams and develops solutions for client challenges involving water/wastewater systems, hydrologic and hydraulic analysis, storm and sewer system compliance, and more. Her commitment to the industry has been recognized by the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) Nebraska, which named her its 2022 Young Professional of the Year, as well as by the American Public Works Association (APWA) Nebraska Chapter which elected her to its executive board. An engaged and active volunteer, she was also one of the American Society of Civil Engineer’s (ASCE) 10 New Faces of Civil Engineering in 2017. 

Where did you grow up?   

I’m from Papillion, a suburb of Omaha.  

Why Rutgers?  

While I was recruited for gymnastics, I chose Rutgers for the opportunity to compete on the Rutgers gymnastics team and for the reputation of the engineering program.  

What did you learn as an athlete? 

I learned how to balance it all. I gained  time management skills and learned  how to work independently. I’m fortunate gymnastics worked well with my SoE schedule so I could be a competitive athlete and represent Rutgers – even as an All-American on the uneven bars. My teammates, too, were understanding  and quiet when I was the only one studying in the bus on the way back from a meet at 1 a.m.  

What drew you to civil engineering?  

I’ve always had a passion for architecture and initially thought I’d take a more structural engineering route. But I found I enjoyed hydrology, hydraulics, and water waste management, which is something I’ve pursued ever since college.  

Who inspired you to be an engineer? 

As a student, my mother thought she was failing engineering courses and was discouraged from entering the profession because she was a woman. She was a very graceful woman, and saw that I had the interest and the drive to pursue any direction for a career. She was very positive and always wanted to see the best in me and so didn’t let her past deter me – instead she wanted to see that I had an opportunity she wasn’t able to have.  

Have you faced any challenges as a woman engineer? 

I was aware there would be some challenges based on what my mother had told me – and in fact there aren’t many women in the industry. I was nervous when first out of college to start a job, and had initial concerns. 

Would I be good enough to be respected? Would people value my opinions? Or would I be discredited right off the bat? Certainly, I’ve had to work harder and earn the respect of colleagues, but I’ve been fortunate to work with good companies all along the way.  

What do you most value about your Rutgers engineering education?  

Rutgers really prepared me to be an engineer. It provided a strong foundation and the necessary resources for me to build on. For that, I am also thankful to Rutgers, because I met my husband, mechanical engineering major, Patrick Mullen ’11, when we were living in the Engineering Dorm. 

Did any professors make a lasting impact on you?  

Professor Husam Najm taught to make his students successful. He wanted every student who entered his classroom to learn and grow as much as they could.  

Were you involved with any extracurriculars besides gymnastics?  

Most athletic programs expect that you have team building activities and community outreach walks or fundraisers, so I did that. I was also involved in the Society of Women Engineers, or SWE, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, student chapters.  

And I benefited from being part of Rutgers’ WINGS – Women Investing and Guiding Students – networking program. Students selected for WINGS partner with women mentors in their profession. I was paired with an IT professional at Johnson & Johnson, who was empowering. 

You were a summer intern with Benesch, where you work now. What was that like?  

As a student intern, I was fortunate to get valuable experience with actual design and field work. But the confidence I gained as an intern was even more valuable than the technical skills I learned. I was nervous and wasn’t quite sure if I had what it takes to be a female in the engineering world. Benesch gave me the confidence to say, “I can do this” and be successful in the industry.  

Now that you’ve returned to Benesch, what are your responsibilities as a project manager? 

I oversee projects on both design and construction sides. I manage everything from roadway resurfacing and widening and bridge construction to the design, rehabilitation and installation of new lines for both water and sewer distribution.  

Being able to straddle both these sides makes me a stronger manager. Seeing things in the field on the construction side makes me a better designer – and vice versa.  

I also oversee and train and teach some small teams, as well as manage and build client relationships to meet their expectations.  

How would you describe your leadership style?   

I see myself as a team leader. Being a leader is important, but you’re stronger when you see yourself as a team leader. This lets you focus on a broader understanding of connectivity with various levels of your team. And team strength builds from the leader.  

What gives you the most job satisfaction?  

I’d say being able to work together as a team. Having been a collegiate athlete, I’ve always been around team environments, seeing how teams work together in harmony to understand and meet each other’s goals and aspirations. Applying that same understanding when working as a team with colleagues and with clients is what I enjoy about going to work every day.  

I also enjoy seeing younger staff grow, succeed, and move in the right direction. Most of us have the same goals and it’s great we can come together to work hard to overcome challenges. 

Congratulations on being named the ACEC Nebraska Young Professional of the Year!  What does this honor mean to you personally and professionally?  

I wish I could tell my mom. It’s an honor to be recognized by peers in the industry, colleagues I work with on a daily basis, and other professional organizations and receive an award like this. It says a lot when you work really hard and when others see that you care about the work that you do. I’m very grateful to know I’ve

What advice would you have for a current engineering student?  

I would say don’t get discouraged – know that your hard work will pay off. Stay focused on your studies but make sure to balance your time so you can enjoy and make the most of your time at college – it doesn’t last forever.  

What do you do for fun these days?  

I don’t do gymnastics anymore, but I still coach on the side.  

I love to run now that I’m not forced to run. I love to jog and walk with my husband and Rhodesian ridgeback – and go on trips with my husband. 

Where would you go if you could go anywhere tomorrow?  

We talk about so many places, but we’d like to go back to Greece where we went for our honeymoon. It goes with my loving architecture. We’ve also wanted to visit Dubai to see the architecture. We love to hike, so visiting Montana is also on our list.