Nov. 21, 2013
By Austin Miller, OleMissSports.com
OXFORD, Miss. -- Courtney Cunningham is a builder. While playing volleyball for Ole Miss from 2009-11, Cunningham helped build the Rebels into an NCAA Tournament team while also earning her civil engineering degree. From that degree, Cunningham is helping build dreams, including her own.
Cunningham spent two weeks this past August in Togo with Engineers Without Borders where she helped with the first phase of a 5- to 10-year project to build a school for one of the communities in the West African nation.
While the group faced many obstacles, they were able to pour two slabs for each classroom, put up all the columns to the correct height and set up an L-shape concrete beam for one of the classrooms.
"We came into a lot of obstacles that prevented us from getting the classrooms done in time," Cunningham said. "That's what happens whenever you go to a foreign country and you don't speak the language. There are always some difficulties you come across."
Cunningham described the typical day, in which they worked from sun up to sun down, in two words: very hot.
"We are so blessed here, and to go over there and have all those challenges put in front of us, and as engineers, we had to figure it out," she said. "They gave us the wrong shipment of rocks for our concrete mix and gravel, so we had to sort rocks. I took that challenge upon myself. It was very tedious, but it needed to be done. And it was a great way to get the kids involved.
"We would measure out an inch on the wheelbarrow. We put the rocks in there, and if it did not fit we would throw it out, and if it did fit we kept it in the wheelbarrow. You can only imagine how challenging this was because none of the kids spoke English, they all spoke French."
Cunningham left Togo on Aug. 21, spent a day in Oxford and then drove to Houston, where she now works as an engineer in training (EIT) for Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam. There, she helps design plans for clients while also learning from the professional engineers (PE) above her.
"Transportation engineering was not really what I worked on when I was in Togo, but the lessons I learned from Togo are helping me here," Cunningham said. "I learned how to deal with difficulties. Everything is not going to go right in engineering; you just have to find a way to make it work. It kind of goes back to volleyball and the classroom as well. You always encounter issues, and something not going right; it's how you and your mindset can make the problem better or fix it."
It's a five-year process from EIT to PE, during which Cunningham has to keep a record of all the projects she works on and then take an exam. That professional engineering license, Cunningham said, is her end goal, what she's working for and her everything right now, but she also sees something beyond the license.
"The dream career is to travel while doing engineering and get to a point where I can call myself a project manager," Cunningham said. "That's the end goal for me. That's what my eye is on right now."
Austin Miller is a writer and blogger for OleMissSports.com. He joined the staff in June 2013 after serving as sports editor of the Daily Mississippian. Follow him on Twitter @austinkmiller