Even as a small girl in Caracas, Venezuela, Sofia Savoca knew she wanted to be an architect, an urban planner or a civil engineer.

“I liked playing with Legos more than I liked playing with Barbies, although don’t get me wrong – Barbies are cool. When I was little, I combined my Legos with my Barbie Dream House and my Polly Pocket Pollyville House into a huge mansion,” says Savoca, a junior civil engineering major. “Building and distributing spaces has always been my calling, and engineering underlies everything.” 

Thanks to that passion and all the opportunities Savoca has embraced since arriving at UMass Lowell, she was selected as one of 10 college students for the 2020 New Faces of Civil Engineering by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In fact, she was selected as the top honoree nationally. Savoca says she’s grateful for the recognition, which came with a modest scholarship.

“Everything makes a difference,” she says.

Savoca’s parents were anxious to secure her an education outside Venezuela because of the ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis there. So her father, an electrical engineer, came to the U.S. to help friends start a business in the Boston area, and Savoca applied to colleges around New England.

She got in everywhere she applied, but UMass Lowell invited her to join the Honors College. That sealed the deal.

“The school that believed in me the most was UMass Lowell. I got into honors, I got the most financial aid and the staff were the most accessible to answer my questions,” she says. “When the Honors College invited me, I felt like I belonged somewhere. They wanted me, and that made things less scary.”

Savoca says she loves her honors classes because they are smaller and involve more contact with professors, as well as group projects. Those have taught her to embrace teamwork and work on her communication skills, she says.

She’s also embraced teamwork through the university’s club sports program, playing on a soccer team and an ultimate Frisbee team.

“I love that they let people with no previous sports experience find something they’re good at,” she says.

Savoca serves as vice president of the American Society of Civil Engineers student chapter and co-leads the ASCE’s outreach program to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell. The ASCE has offered great opportunities, including a trip to its annual conference to network with professionals, she says.

She’s also secretary of the Student Society for Sustainability and a member of Chi Epsilon, the civil engineering honor society, and Omicron Delta Kappa, a national honors leadership society.

She’s had no shortage of professional opportunities, either. Director Ruairi O’Mahony gave Savoca her first job in the campus Office of Sustainability, where she worked for two years. In the summer after her freshman year, she served as an orientation leader

The following summer, she got a paid internship in the Auburn, N.H., office of Stantec, a multinational engineering and architectural firm. There, she got design experience, worked with AutoCAD and Revit 3D modeling software and learned about fluid mechanics and properties of different materials. 

“The people and my team were amazing,” she says. “The work was really interesting, and I felt appreciated.”

In her junior year, Savoca began working as a research assistant for Asst. Prof. Yuanchang Xie on a massive intersection analysis project for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. 

She also got trained to work as one of the first “Career Peers” for the Career & Co-op Center, which had helped her to get the Stantec internship.

“Opportunities, opportunities – it’s raining opportunities. They’re here if you work hard and know where to look,” she says. “UMass Lowell is always looking to do what’s best for you.”

Assoc. Teaching Prof. Edward Hajduk, who is also associate chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, told Savoca about the ASCE “New Faces” opportunity – and she decided to take advantage of that, too.

Writing six short essays – about what she had learned from all of her experiences, her father’s influence as a role model, her enthusiasm for civil engineering and her hope that she might someday help to rebuild Venezuela’s infrastructure – won her the ASCE honor. And she expects even better things are ahead.

“Civil engineers construct bridges that bring people together. They construct hospitals that heal people in mind and body,” she says. “There’s always a way to make things better, and my profession is ever-evolving.”