How CityWorks Inspired Phoebe Chen to Pursue the Possibilities of Civil Engineering

Phoebe Chen used to believe the engineering field was out of reach for her. “I thought engineering was too hard or only for males,” she explained. “But one summer changed my perspective and helped chart the course for my journey.”

Chen is currently a third year student at the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in Civil Engineering. She previously completed three summer internships through CityWorks, which exposed her to different STEM career pathways and allowed her to connect with other female engineers. This summer, she is taking summer courses to further explore specialities in Engineering.

Chen immigrated from China with her parents and her sister just before starting her junior year at Burton High School in San Francisco. She was surprised how students in the United States began preparing for college during their junior year of high school, whereas students in China tested and applied for university right before graduating high school. “I was amazed that some of my classmates were already making summer plans to work or pursue an internship,” she explained. “I didn’t think about applying for internships until I saw a CityWorks poster outside of my high school counselor’s office. I had planned to pursue accounting because I was good at math. The CityWorks poster advertised internships in accounting and engineering, so I decided to apply that summer.”

CityWorks offers paid summer internships to Bay Area youth and introduces high school and college students to exciting careers with underrepresentation of People of Color and women, showing them firsthand the vast career opportunities available to them within the utilities sector. Chen’s CityWorks experience was made possible through the SFPUC’s Social Impact Partnership Program, which is a result of commitments made and delivered by private firms working on SFPUC infrastructure projects. To develop and operate the CityWorks program, the SFPUC also partners with Young Community Developers, a local community based organization focused on youth empowerment and employment based training. 

Phoebe Chen working at a computer during her internship at Brown and Caldwell in 2019.

As an intern, Chen was placed at firms working on active SFPUC projects, such as Dabri, Inc. and Brown and Caldwell. During her internships, she worked with firm staff on day-to-day office and administrative duties, and also had the opportunity to learn about project documentation and different engineering specialities. Chen met with female engineers and CityWorks speakers who shared details about their career experiences and journeys. Through those conversations, Chen realized that engineering and other STEM careers were within reach for her and other young women. 

“I learned how engineering impacts the world around us and the various specialities that can be explored, such as air quality, wastewater, transportation, water quality, and more,” she shared. “I was inspired that everyone has the possibility of going into this field.”

Chen described how touring the SFPUC’s facilities with CityWorks further solidified her decision to major in Civil Engineering. “The trip to Hetch Hetchy was eye-opening. Even though it was during a year with wildfires and it was smokey, it was great to see such an engineering marvel over two days. It was the first time I took a trip since immigrating to the United States. One night, we went to the dam and looked at the stars. I realized how it took so many engineers and builders to create the SFPUC’s facilities and Hetch Hetchy, from pipes to treatment plants, delivering service to the Bay Area. It was amazing to see the facilities firsthand,” she explained.

As Chen continues her education at U.C. Berkeley, she plans to further explore engineering specialties to pursue in graduate school. “I’m interested in geotechnical, air quality and wastewater engineering, but I don’t want to hold myself back from other focuses that I want to build my career on,” she said. “CityWorks helped me realize there are so many fields within engineering, so I want to give myself the opportunity to learn more and meet other female engineers in those fields.”

For young people who are exploring majors or interests to study in college, Chen recommends applying for internships during high school and college to learn about different career possibilities. “Sign up to see what you would like. If you’re already interested in STEM, still explore what other fields would interest you. Try to find something that you can make your own. You never know what doors will open for your future. Let yourself be inspired and go for it.”

Phoebe Chen at U.C. Berkeley.