Susan M. Castellan ’84 CE

Vice President, The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company

 

Susan Castellan with fellow Civil Engineering major Kathleen (Cray) Ogilvie ’84
Susan Castellan with fellow Civil Engineering major Kathleen (Cray) Ogilvie ’84

What has been your career path since graduation from Villanova?

After graduation, a verbal job offer from my internship provider fell through, and I found myself with a degree and no job. Thankfully, a friend of my father’s at Whiting-Turner helped me secure an interview with the company, which offered me a job for the summer. Now, almost 32 years later, I am still with them.  Some people may consider my career path a bit boring, but I have certainly enjoyed the ride—both the people and the work—and continue to enjoy what I do. 

Whiting-Turner has a tradition, started in 1909, of hiring engineering students right out of school and developing their leadership from within. The hope is that young engineers will stay for their entire careers, as I have.  I was hired as a project engineer in the Baltimore office and have worked my way up the ranks—from project engineer to project manager, to senior project manager, to vice president.

I am very glad that my internship did not turn into a job!  I have always felt very blessed to work at Whiting-Turner.  The Holy Spirit was watching out for me!

Susan M. Castellan ’84 CE, Vice President, The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company
Susan M. Castellan ’84 CE, Vice President, The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company

Tell us about your current position?

I am a vice president and run an operating group out of our DC office (located in Greenbelt, MD). The Whiting-Turner way is “learn by doing.”  You begin your career by working on projects with more experienced managers teaching you the ropes.  You start by assisting the project manager, and as you learn more you begin to take on more and more responsibility for the various tasks that need to get done. Eventually you are taking on a leadership role—first on smaller projects, then larger projects, then multiple projects. All of Whiting-Turners operations personnel are cross trained in all aspects of construction management. 

I am responsible for seeking out new opportunities for my group, evaluating the project’s risks/rewards, strategizing how best to get the work, and managing (through staffing and oversight) the project construction from beginning to end.  I still thoroughly enjoy spending time on jobsites with my teams and watching the construction take place. Whiting-Turner, which is the 2nd largest General Building construction company in the United States, has over 90 operating groups across the country and we work together when pursuing very large jobs or breaking into new markets in various parts of the country.  On a corporate level, I attend national conferences and look for opportunities and connections for Whiting-Turner as a whole. 

What has been the highlight of your career to date?

There are many highlights of my career, but one of my favorite projects was the Howard Theatre.  This project was the revitalization of an historic theater in Washington, DC.  It was a difficult project to get off the starting block due to finances.  Opened in 1910, the theater was a premier venue for African American artists—greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong all played the Howard.  It closed after the riots in the late 60’s.  Several attempts to reopen the theater were unsuccessful.  Finally, with the help of historic tax credits, funding from the District, and a developer that was willing to take a risk, the project got off the ground in 2010—100 years after the original opening.  The renovation took 18 months and the Howard Theatre re-opened its doors in April 2012. 

The sheer history is one reason to love the Howard Theatre project, but there are other reasons. This was also a challenging project.  The historic Howard did not have the needed space for a modern musical venue. The only way to capture new space without impacting the historic building was to build a basement underneath.  We had to underpin the existing foundations and temporarily support the interior columns, while we built new, deeper foundation walls and new footings and columns. It was further complicated by an adjacent development project that was going to excavate about 30' deeper than the historic floor level.  It was a very cool engineering challenge!

The embassy projects that I have worked on have been wonderful too—the Embassy of Singapore and Embassy of Brunei. More recently we worked on St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, DC. Every project has been interesting; whether it is a challenging schedule, or a complicated phasing, or (like the Howard) complex engineering, but some are more memorable than others.

How did your Villanova education contribute to your success?

I loved Villanova; it was a great place for me to get my degree. The Catholic traditions and values were a continuation of my family’s values. I was home, away from home.  The friends that I met and the education that I received were outstanding.

My Villanova education taught me how to approach problems and use critical thinking skills to find creative solutions. I learned that there is often more than one solution to a problem and that an engineer should be looking for the solution that effectively and efficiently achieves the goals of the project.  I am not even sure how this was taught; I don’t remember it being explicit, but as I began my career I became very aware of this in my training. 

I also think Villanova gave me confidence in my education. I remember distinctly being aware of feeling that my engineering degree from Villanova was more comprehensive and solid than some of my counterparts. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I do remember having a stronger basic knowledge than one of my colleagues who also had just graduated with a Civil Engineering degree from another school. 

What do you know now that you wish you knew then (as a college student or new graduate)?

With an engineering degree you can do anything. I am always amazed at the different paths that engineers take. An engineering degree is not limiting, it is liberating. It is a solid foundation for any career path that a person chooses and it is a degree that is almost always in demand.   

What one piece of advice would you give to the next generation of female engineers?

Perfection is to be strived for, but don’t stress out when it is not achieved. We live in an imperfect world, and even with imperfection you can achieve great things. Every circumstance needs you to do the very best you can, but know that you can’t make all things perfect—and that is okay. 

This also is true when looking for a job. There is no perfect job. You are looking for the job that will provide challenging work, a supportive environment (shared values) and enjoyment. It may not be the one that gives you the biggest paycheck; it is the one that gives you the opportunity to have a life outside of work.