Member Profile: Cheyanne Harris, Brown and Caldwell

Members in the News, Wastewater News, Women in Water

For Cheyanne Harris, it all started in middle school. Growing up in Sacramento, she attended the School of Engineering and Sciences – a specialized school that invited guest speakers from the math, science and engineering industries. What appealed to Cheyanne about engineering was the opportunity to make a positive impact on the community using math and science principles, something she has always been good at and enjoys. While a student at Pleasant Grove High School, she pursued additional opportunities with community service oriented engineering projects. In college at University of the Pacific, she participated in a co-op program, or six-month internship that introduces students to real-world experience through entry level engineering work. Cheyanne’s internship at the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District (Central San) in Martinez was the pivotal moment for her decision to become an engineer. While at Central San she was able to combine her knowledge from school with real projects that served the community. Her positive experience at Central San helped solidify her choice to enter this profession.

Today Cheyanne is a Civil Engineer with Brown and Caldwell, a grad student at UC Davis and an inspiring young professional eager to learn more, take on new challenges and make the profession a more equitable one, something she recently started by participating in Balance and Belonging initiatives at Brown and Caldwell to build a workplace where everyone can thrive.

We sat down with Cheyanne to learn a little more about her and her passion for clean water.

What has been your greatest benefit from being in this profession?

The access to knowledge. I like to learn and challenge myself. I have been really pleased to connect with people and gain personal knowledge through involvement on projects. There will always be so much more to learn but I’ve been really impressed with the accessibility to knowledge. I have a coalition of mentors that ranges from my direct supervisor to people I’ve met through different industry organizations, all have been helpful through my career.

What has been your greatest challenge in this profession?

Being a graduate student at UC Davis in civil and environmental engineering while working at Brown and Caldwell brings on a set of unique challenges, specifically not getting overwhelmed at the breadth of learning opportunities. While there is a lot of advancement and innovation within the clean water industry, there is a lot of historical knowledge as well. It’s been challenging not to get overwhelmed at how much there is to learn and instead just try to focus on pieces of knowledge at a time. Also, the fact that there are a lot of people retiring from the industry, there seems to be pressure on early career professionals to learn and gain as much knowledge as they can from those getting ready to retire.

What is your vision for the future in this profession?

Innovative multidisciplinary problem solving. As we’ve seen in the past six months, we have some complex challenges in society from aging infrastructure (technically based) but also systemic racism (socially based). I would like to see people from all backgrounds, whether technical or a community organizing background, with different experience levels come together and partner in a way that helps solve those problems in a wide variety of spectrums. If we’re going to build a pipeline we need to involve the community that is impacted and have the community provide direct input. Rather than seeing the community as a problem to be mitigated or an issue to be solved, we can actually involve the community in the process from the start.

What is the biggest value you get from being a CWEA member?

While I’m still new to being a CWEA member, it’s been really great seeing all the learning opportunities beyond what I’m learning at Brown and Caldwell and UC Davis. It’s exciting to see how each individual can shape their own experience as a CWEA member. I can see over the long term how I will strongly benefit from staying involved with CWEA.

What would you tell a young, black student are reasons to join the water profession? 

The overall takeaway is regardless of where your interests lie, there is an opportunity in the clean water industry for you. If you are interested in specialized technical innovation you can experiment with different treatment technologies or infrastructure optimization. If you are interested in social advancement, you can explore how infrastructure impacts the communities we live in. The appeal of the water profession is that there is an opportunity to get involved in the technical space but also the people space.

While I’ve opted to become a civil engineer there are a lot of different directions you can go. You may not know exactly what you want to do, but either way your voice deserves to be heard in the water profession.

What should we do to diversify our profession?

Intentional outreach at a wide variety of educational levels is going to be crucial. The whole reason I am a civil engineer now is because there was effective outreach to me as a middle schooler. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t be here as a civil engineer today. To diversity our profession, effective outreach must start with elementary and middle schoolers, either with a tour of a plant or a shadow day with industry professionals. For high schoolers and college students, internships and informational interviews are great examples of effective outreach. There is a lot of emphasis on doing outreach at the collegiate level which is important; however, to bring about the paradigm shift that is necessary in a wide variety of professions, outreach has to start earlier and I think in a lot of cases that has to be at the elementary school level.