A Life of Service Engineering

The Dow building on the Michigan Tech campus glows with light just before dawn. The sky is somewhat cloudy in the background and the building is surrounded by trees.
The Dow building on the Michigan Tech campus glows with light just before dawn. The sky is somewhat cloudy in the background and the building is surrounded by trees.
Michigan Tech alum Cathy Leslie learned tenacity during her studies at Michigan Tech.

Her service with the Peace Corps in Nepal gave Cathy Leslie ’83 the background to undertake administration of Engineers Without Borders USA.

But it was her time as a student at Michigan Tech in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering that taught Leslie, Engineers Without Borders USA’s (EWB) recently retired CEO, a tenacious attitude and how to stand up for herself as a professional woman in a field dominated by men.

Bridging Barriers 

Cathy Leslie is one of many Michigan Tech alumni and students involved with Engineers Without Borders. Read about projects in Bolivia and Guatemala in the 2020 Michigan Tech Magazine.

“When I graduated there weren’t all that many women in the Tech engineering program,” Leslie said. “It taught me never to drink coffee, because then I never had to make coffee. Tech taught me to be persistent and to move forward in the face of adversity. I came out with a real sense of ‘you’re not going to tell me no.’”

Leslie began leading EWB while also working full time at an engineering firm. When she shifted to managing EWB full time, it was with a goal of taking the natural human tendency to help others and guide it with a healthy dose of pragmatism.

“We have very philanthropic people in the U.S. who give time and money,” Leslie said. “A great example: People donate water pumps. Our people would install them, but the problem is water pumps are hard to maintain because in many places in the world you can’t get spare parts. Then the pumps wouldn’t work longer than a year or two. Volunteers had done something with the best of intentions, and then the project wouldn’t work after a short time.” 

She’s quick to stress that international development and aid through engineering must be undertaken in very specific ways. Unfortunately, there are many examples of engineering projects undertaken with the best of intentions that ultimately failed. A crucial part EWB’s mission is ensuring that projects can be affordably sustained by communities.

A woman sits in the sand while leaning against a large boulder. An open book is in her lap. She is smiling.
Leslie has enjoyed settling into retirement in the latter half of 2020. Image Credit: Cathy Leslie 

Good intentions aren’t enough. “Volunteers absolutely make a difference but they need to be trained in the right way,” Leslie said. 

EWB’s guiding principles are a literal guide for the budding engineers who enthusiastically throw themselves into aid projects.

“One thing I love about college students: They have a ton of energy and when something grabs their interest, they dive in. The thing I hate about college students is that they have a ton of energy! You have to steer them in the right direction and give them a degree of autonomy,” she said.

Her advice to young engineers beginning their careers? Stay motivated to help people, particularly in places that need it most — but get really good at your job first. Get through the training period leading up to the professional engineer exam and certification before seeking out philanthropic work.

"You have a valuable degree, but you need to learn what to do with it. The best thing you can do is stay here in the U.S. and learn to be that engineer."Cathy Leslie

“If you want to go into nonprofit after that, first learn to be the engineer so you have a skill to bring to the table. Figure out how to use that degree for the betterment of people, but practice here where we can afford to fix your mistakes.”

Mistakes are important learning experiences. So is channeling the drive to make a difference.

“My career has really been around making a difference,” Leslie said. “In your job some projects will make a huge difference and others, not so much. Really identify with what your passion is to make a difference and then make sure you’re really good at that, because even if you’re passionate, sometimes work is very hard.”

"Life is too short — make sure you enjoy the heck out of what you do."Cathy Leslie

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.