Advice from SMU Lyle Civil Engineering Alum Courtney Kelly ’12, ’13 on Making Your Voice Heard
Through a collection of children’s books, Courtney shares lessons from her personal experience and inspires the next generation of civil engineers
SMU Lyle Alum Courtney Kelly was a sophomore in high school when her family packed up to evacuate New Orleans, La. ahead of Hurricane Katrina. They drove from her hometown to Baton Rouge, the state capitol, where they planned to wait out the storm for only a few days.
“Hurricane Katrina caught a lot of people off guard,” Kelly said. “It wasn't anticipated to be that intense. We packed for a weekend thinking we'd come back and everything would be fine."
But Katrina was a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane that caused widespread flooding, took more than 1,800 lives, and made history as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. It also irrevocably changed the course of Kelly’s future. She had to finish the rest of her high school years in Baton Rouge due to the hurricane destruction in New Orleans. While there, she also attended math and science camps that introduced her to different engineering disciplines.
“The idea that we were completely caught off guard by Katrina didn't really sit right with me,” Kelly said. “Civil engineering started to stick out to me as a possible way to learn things that would lead to a solution for preventing what happened with Hurricane Katrina. That’s why I decided to study civil engineering at SMU.”
Kelly earned undergraduate degrees in civil engineering and math from SMU Lyle in 2012. She pursued a master’s degree in civil engineering with a concentration in structures in 2013, became a licensed professional civil engineer in 2016, and earned her master’s in business administration from Lamar University in 2021. She began a career in construction project management of heavy civil infrastructure projects throughout Dallas-Fort Worth, including at DFW International and Love Field Airports, various highway systems, and local municipalities.
"Throughout my career working on different construction sites, I’ve noticed there just hasn’t been that many people that look like me doing what I do,” she said. “So I decided to write a children’s book, Celeste Saves the City, to inspire the next generation to consider the possibilities of a career in civil engineering and construction."
The book’s storyline is a familiar one: After Celeste’s family evacuates from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina, she declares that she will become a civil engineer and find a way to keep the city from flooding. She uses barrier islands to help restore and protect the coastal wetlands, a practice that is currently being used by New Orleans and other cities around the world.
“I thought if I wrote a children's book, then kids and the people reading the books to them could learn about civil engineering and see this black civil engineer growing up through a tragic event in her life,” said Kelly, who plans to continue Celeste’s story into multiple books. “At the same time, it showcases the beauty of New Orleans and offers a glimpse into ways that we can prevent similar things from happening in the future. In the next book, Celeste Tunnels Underground, Celeste will help solve the issue of traffic congestion by building a tunnel in Dallas.”
As a construction management leader and role model for other minorities and women seeking similar career paths, Kelly said her time at SMU Lyle made a huge impact her development and the course of her career.
“SMU Lyle prepares students for both the lab room and the boardroom,” Kelly said. “When I graduated, I not only knew how to solve equations and formulas and think like an engineer, I also had no problem getting in front of a group of people to speak in a meeting or communicating well with others. The school prepares you for success both as an engineer and for whatever facet of professional life you choose to pursue.”
Courtney Kelly presents to a civil engineering class at SMU Lyle about inclusive leadership
—Thinking grad school? Think SMU Lyle. Learn about our Master’s in Civil Engineering —
For the next generation of civil engineers hoping to follow in Kelly’s footsteps, she shared four pieces of advice on reaching your goals and making your voice heard:
Lean on your support system
“I think it's important to remember that it really hasn't been that long ago since women and minorities have made strides in the engineering profession,” she said. “That's not to say that we're there – we definitely have more strides to make. But on days when you feel discouraged or wonder if this is really for you, just try to keep moving forward. As hard as it is, there are people here supporting you.”
If somebody comes and approaches you with an opportunity, take hold of it, she said. If you miss those opportunities, you might not get them back.
“I used to have a supervisor that would give me side projects that were completely unrelated to anything that I was doing at the time,” she said. “But when I took hold of those opportunities and got comfortable with taking on daunting challenges, I learned so much. I gained a lot of respect by saying yes, even when I didn't know everything.”
Grow and leverage your network
If you increase your network, you increase your net worth, Kelly said.
“People can get a little intimidated sometimes by the idea of networking, but it’s really important,” she said. “Think about it from the perspective of finding a hairdresser – you would typically ask a friend or look it up online. Networking is the same thing: It's connecting people and ideas for whatever goal you're trying to achieve. The quicker that people get on board with the idea that networking is beneficial and learn to do it well, the better off they'll be, especially at a campus like SMU.”
If you knock on a hundred doors and all those doors never open for you, just keep on knocking.
“That's happened to me time and time again, especially with publishing my children’s book,” she said. “I spent countless hours sending emails and direct messages to people just trying to find an opportunity. But if I had stopped, then it wouldn't have gotten published. You don't really know when somebody's going to give you a shot, but your responsibility is to keep trying. Maybe there's another opportunity out there that will position you for something better."
About the Bobby Lyle School of Engineering
SMU's Lyle School of Engineering thrives on innovation that transcends traditional boundaries. We strongly believe in the power of externally funded, industry-supported research to drive progress and provide exceptional students with valuable industry insights. Our mission is to lead the way in digital transformation within engineering education, all while ensuring that every student graduates as a confident leader. Founded in 1925, SMU Lyle is one of the oldest engineering schools in the Southwest, offering undergraduate and graduate programs, including master’s and doctoral degrees.
SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in eight degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, community and the world.