CEE senior Amanda Caldwell-Jacques interviews CEE alumna Marilyn E. Tears

Amanda Caldwell-Jacques is a senior at Illinois with an environmental engineering primary and a construction management secondary. As the president of the Water Environment Federation-American Water Works Association student chapter and member of the CEE Student Committee, Amanda has capitalized on numerous opportunities provided by the CEE department. She is an Engineering 100 instructor for freshman CEE students and is an undergraduate researcher with Assistant Professor Roland Cusick.

Marilyn Tears (BS 80, MS 82) is the ExxonMobil Development Company Safety, Security, Health & Environment (SSH&E) Manager, a position she has held since April 2015.  Prior to that position, she held project management roles for the Deepwater Portfolio for Hadrian South, Marine Well Containment Interim Response System and most recently was Senior Project Manager for Julia Project, a subsea tie-back project in water depths of more than 7,000 feet with oil production starting in 2016. During her 33-year career with ExxonMobil, Tears has held various Upstream technical & supervisory positions, managed operations, planned and supported offshore development and global construction, and led project management and execution teams. 

Tears is a leader in supporting inclusion and diversity at ExxonMobil. She is a founding member of the team that established the Upstream Women’s network at ExxonMobil. In 2011, she was honored with the ExxonMobil Upstream Women’s Leadership Role Model award. Tears represents ExxonMobil on the Society of Women Engineers Corporate Partnership council.  

Tears resides in Houston, Texas, with her husband of 32 years, Nelson Tears, a Senior Technical Consultant in ExxonMobil Development Company Drilling.  They have two daughters.

In 2014, Tears established an endowed fund to provide scholarships to CEE students. The “Duane Edward and Phyllis Ann Erickson Memorial Scholarship in Civil and Environmental Engineering” honors her parents, who were great proponents of education.


Do you have a favorite memory about the CEE department? 

The dedication of the professors to help me learn is what stands out about the CEE department. The last day before Christmas break my senior year I ran out of money in my computer account and Professor Leonard Lopez came back to campus just to update my account so I could finish my last design project.  Professor Lopez’s dedication and kindness to his students is an example of what made my experience at CEE successful and enjoyable. 

If you could, what piece of advice would you give yourself on your Illinois graduation day?

Be willing to try new opportunities. Embrace them fully even though at first glance they may not be what you had in your original plan.  If I had not done this I would have missed some of the best opportunities of my life.

Where was your favorite place to study on campus? What made it great? 

My favorite place to study was at the “old” engineering library.  You could find a desk in the back of the library where you could spread out your books and have quiet to concentrate. 

When and how did you know you wanted to study civil engineering? Work in the oil and energy industry?  

I thought I wanted to be an architect when I started college since I wanted to “build things.”  I spent my first year at University of Illinois in architecture.  In my first architecture class I realized I wasn’t excited about most of the topics except structural design.  So I transferred to Civil Engineering and focused on structural design and construction management.  I went to work at Exxon when I graduated as it allowed me to be involved in small designs and construction from the start. In the beginning it wasn’t as much about oil and gas but civil engineering work and being able to “build things.”  The challenges and technology of oil and gas work have kept me in the industry for more than 30 years.   

What is the best part about being a CEE at Illinois alumna? 

The bragging rights of being ranked the best civil engineering college for so many years that I’ve stopped counting.

Why do you give to CEE at Illinois? 

I give to honor my parents and to give back to a place that has made a difference in my life.  My father, Duane Erickson, was a professor at the University of Illinois and my mother, Phyllis Erickson, was a grade school teacher in Urbana.  They taught me that through education and hard work you could obtain the skills to follow your dreams. CEE at Illinois gave me the skills to follow my dreams and end up with a career that has been beyond my wildest dreams at graduation. Additionally, the University of Illinois has been a big part of my life.  I grew up in Urbana and benefited from many of the activities at the University­—after-school science programs, Illini sporting events, apple orchards, Krannert Theater to name a few.

Is there a single project you have led during your time with ExxonMobil you are most proud of?

After working at ExxonMobil for more than 30 years there are many that I am very proud to have had a leadership role in. The Hoover-Diana Project was a deepwater project located in nearly a mile deep water in the Gulf of Mexico and when built contained numerous industry firsts. Although I was proud of the facility we built, I was even more proud of the operations team that I was responsible for building to operate the facility.  I managed the $1.2B asset for two years after start-up and our team safely produced oil and gas without environmental incident while building a strong relationship with regulatory agencies. 

What is the best part of a typical work day for you? 

Finding a solution to the current challenge of the day, being able to go to the fabrication site to see progress, getting to take a coffee break or have lunch with a co-worker, seeing a team member I have coached be successful. 

What has been the hardest part of your career? 

I think ending one position at ExxonMobil and moving on to a new assignment is my hardest challenge.  Even though my new position may be really exciting and one I desired, it is still hard to give up something you have given your full effort to for several years. 

What excited you most during Julia project?

My most recent project was the ExxonMobil Julia Project which is an ultra-deepwater project in the Gulf of Mexico with significant step-out technologies.  Every day was a mix of problem-solving on unique challenges with an extremely capable and creative project team. The project challenged me to use my experience but stretched me to learn every day.               i