Civil engineering student’s success earned through service

Tim Schley
May 01, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Abigail Cowser wanted to make an impact, so her high school physics teacher recommended she become an engineer.

“He took me and a few other students to a ‘Women in Engineering Day’ at Westinghouse, where I was first exposed to the vast applications of engineering in our world,” Cowser said.

The Bethel Park native — who spent significant portions of her childhood participating in church mission trips and service opportunities — saw herself reflected in these engineers. If they could do it, why not her?

“I looked up to these women and realized this was something that I was capable of,” Cowser said.

Cowser will soon finish an impressive undergraduate career at Penn State with a string of accolades. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently named her one of the “2020 New Faces of Civil Engineering,” a designation reserved for 10 collegiate “up-and-coming civil engineers” across the country. 

She was also awarded one of six 2020 John W. Oswald Awards, an honor given to graduating Penn State seniors who have provided outstanding leadership at the University.

“I grow more impressed each time I learn something new about her,” said Brian Naberezny, lecturer in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Penn State. “While Abby excels academically, she also devotes a large amount of her energy applying her academic knowledge and leadership skills to help vulnerable and underserved populations.”

Engineers in Action

Cowser’s service-minded mentality is best demonstrated through her involvement with the Penn State chapter of Engineers in Action: Bridge program, an organization that designs and builds footbridges for isolated communities to better access essential resources. 

According to Cowser, she attended her first meeting with Engineers in Action and knew it was a great opportunity to use her engineering aptitude to serve others. Cowser quickly accepted responsibilities in the organization and was selected to travel to Rwanda in her first year.

“Traveling to Rwanda gave me the chance to live and work alongside rural communities for a month and opened my eyes to how infrastructure changes lives,” Cowser said. “Even though we were not speaking the same language, we proved that uniting over our mission of improving access was more powerful than words.”

Cowser eventually assumed the role of project manager in her junior year, responsible for overseeing the organization’s trip to Bolivia in 2019. That year, the team designed their bridge, raised funds and eventually traveled to the country — and then learned that the community decided to go in another direction.

“The community we were going to work with decided that they wanted to save their time and money in hopes of building a vehicular bridge,” Cowser said.

The team was devastated, but she said the experience reinforced the importance of communication for international development. They managed to salvage the trip, traveling to different sites and assisting other chapters’ projects. Cowser left Bolivia with a new sense of humility and a deeper understanding of what it means to provide service to others.

“It taught me a lot about putting the needs of the community before my own,” Cowser said.

A little more time at home

Cowser is completing her final semester at Penn State, albeit under much different circumstances than the previous seven. She is set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and has accepted a full-time position with HITT Contracting, a construction company that emphasizes social responsibility and community service.

Cowser was not able to savor her final experiences as afn undergraduate on campus, but just as she did in Bolivia, she is adapting to these new challenges with grace and humility.  

“Even though it is easy for me to get upset about missing graduation, my last ‘Blue-White’ game, ‘Movin’ On’, saying ‘goodbye’ to my friends and professors that have shaped my past four years, I think it is important for me to focus on the fact that I am healthy and safe,” Cowser said.

In the meantime, she is just enjoying the extra time with family.

“I have been cherishing the highs — and the lows — that come from all of us working at home,” Cowser said.


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Last Updated May 01, 2020