From the rural roads of her hometown in Port Harcourt, Nigeria to Ring Road surrounding the UMass Dartmouth campus, Nneoma Ugwu’s journey is mapped with achievements. She has excelled as a student and gained invaluable experiences through internships and research opportunities while adjusting to a country very different from her own.
She will graduate from UMass Dartmouth with a 3.96 GPA, as a Chancellor’s and President’s Scholar every semester since her freshman year, and acceptances to multiple graduate schools. At the College of Engineering’s Scholarship Awards Ceremony, Ugwu received the Professor Allan L. Campbell Civil Engineering Award for achieving the highest GPA in her major.
Ugwu plans to earn a doctorate in engineering and return to her native Nigeria to help improve the country’s deteriorating roads and highways.
“In Nigeria, we have deteriorating roads, traffic congestion, and no roads in some cases. I want to impact change through roads and transportation,” Ugwu said.
She will speak about her journey at Commencement as she was selected the undergraduate commencement speaker. She is thrilled that her parents will be in the audience.
Navitas Program provides foundation for success
Ugwu’s path to college was facilitated by the UMass Dartmouth Navitas Global Student Success Program (GSSP) that was developed to provide international students with the skills they need to be successful in the higher education environment. Other students from Nigeria have attended college through the program, which helps with the application process, selecting classes, and organizing social events.
“I experienced some culture shock,” said Ugwu. “I didn’t know what an ice cream social was. Navitas definitely helped with the transition.”
Undergraduate Navitas GSSP students spend their first year in the program with a supportive environment that includes smaller class sizes and the additional instructional time needed to succeed in further studies or to matriculate into a degree program.
Learning English was not a problem for Ugwu, who learned the language when she was younger although her native tongue—Igbo—is spoken at home.
Family of engineers
Ugwu chose UMassD for its civil engineering program. Her major is a family tradition as she is the daughter and sister of civil and mechanical engineers. Her family owns Bistar LTD, which oversees drilling and construction projects throughout Nigeria.
Upon completing her education, Ugwu plans to either work in Nigeria's Ministry of Transportation or start her own foundation “to give back and make changes there in public projects, building schools, anything I can do to give back to the community,” she said.
Day begins at 4 a.m.
When asked how she juggles so many responsibilities with her internships and studies, Ugwu said she prioritizes. “I’m staying focused, remembering why I’m here and the things that are most important.”
Time management is more like energy management, says Ugwu, explaining that she rises at 4 a.m. to start studying. It’s not surprising since her parents, Dr. Chinelo and Dr. Max Ugwu, wake up at 2 a.m. to read and catch up on their work. Her mother is a teacher, school counselor, and author of two books and nearly 40 journal articles. Both of her parents hold master’s and doctoral degrees.
“That has always been our goal for me,” she said. “It is my driving force.”
Ugwu talks to her parents every day. “Thank God for technology and video chatting,” she said.
Faculty support and guidance made a difference
She is grateful for the College of Engineering faculty who helped and supported her. “I thought I was going to struggle the whole way through. The professors were so supportive, they pushed me to go on, advised me on what path to take, who to talk to. If you had a question, they would walk you through it. Their doors were always open. Some professors knew I needed help without even asking.”
Ugwu’s advisor, Dr. Neil Fennessey, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, “was an impeccable professor. He was not only a good teacher, but he cared about his students.”
Fennessey says, “She is one of the quiet ones who prefers the back of the lecture room to not draw attention. However, her focus is as sharp as William Tell's was on the apple atop his son's head and I have no doubt that Nneoma will have a significant, positive impact to the Nigerian Ministry of Transportation. I am proud to be a milepost along the route of her journey and I wish her Godspeed. "
Dr. Mazdak Tootkaboni, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, was also very helpful and “a brilliant professor with a phenomenal teaching style,” Ugwu said. “He was the first professor who made me realize my true potential for success.”
“I had Nneoma in my Structural Analysis class; she was one of the best and earned an A+,” Tootkaboni said. “She is taking my Steel Design course now, and I can see her being at the top of the class again. Nneoma is smart but humble, energetic but calm, and outspoken but respectful. She is committed and has high ethics; what every professor would hope for in his/her class.”
Research and co-op experiences enhanced classroom learning
Ugwu enjoyed valuable hands-on experiences in her internships and research projects. Last year, she worked with Assistant Professor Shakhnoza Kayumova as a research assistant for a National Science Foundation grant to explore whether science education was fair for non-English speaking students in New Bedford and Fall River. She helped to create a program to increase the interest of minority students in pursuing STEM careers.
Ugwu was project manager for her senior capstone project, a redesign of the Mashpee Rotary on the southeast coast of Cape Cod. The rotary presents several concerns for the town; traffic congestion, no pedestrian accommodations to and from nearby shops at Mashpee Commons, and automobile safety. The team’s proposed redesign is expected to be implemented in September.
Ugwu has co-op experience as a quality control intern at P.J. Keating, a manufacturer of hot mix asphalt. She worked in the Acushnet office and received three credits and a salary. She wrote a 50-page quality control manual for their lab, created a promotional video for the company’s intern program, and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity. Her main responsibility was hot mixed asphalt testing and she helped to make sure the paving material met federal and state specifications.
She also worked with a project manager repaving the New Bedford airport runways, where she met people from the FAA and worked with major transportation companies. In addition to her hands-on experience, Ugwu earned two safety certifications and found a niche for her engineering career.
“I come from a Third World country with a failing infrastructure and I hope my research in transportation will be useful,” she said.
Volunteer and vlogger
Ugwu also found time to volunteer with Engineers Without Borders on the Panama Aqueduct Project during the summer of 2017 to supply clean water to over 300 residents in the Valle Las Perlas Village. Ugwu created a visual model to educate the villagers on the importance of water conservation and sustainability.
She served as a senior resident assistant and volunteered with the National Society of Black Engineers, helping to raise over $8,000 for the organization’s national networking convention in Pittsburgh, and was vice president of the African Students Association.
Outside of engineering, Ugwu is a beauty and style vlogger on her own YouTube channel, reaching more than 1,000 viewers on three continents. “I like to encourage the feminine side of being a female engineer. It’s my way of expressing myself and my way of putting my opinions out there,” she said.
When asked what she is most proud of, Ugwu said that all of her accomplishments stand out. “I’m definitely proud of every decision. I’m proud of the woman I’ve become and I’m very proud to be a black female engineer. I’m proud of staying true to my religion and the friends I’ve made. Everyone I have met has either supported me or challenged me to become better.”
As her journey continues beyond UMass Dartmouth, Ugwu said she is leaving with amazing experiences. “Everything came together and UMass Dartmouth gave me a lot of fulfillment. What would really make me feel accomplished is to go back to my country, which I love, and give back.”