Alumna reflects on her education and career

Gloria Caban-McCutcheonBy Gloria Caban-McCutcheon

On Friday, June 4, 1965, I graduated as Valedictorian from Granite City Senior High School. As the summer of 1965 approached fall, my mom Lucille, grandmother Naomi, and I drove from Granite City, Illinois, to the Blaisdell dormitory at the University of Illinois.  We unpacked my belongings and had dinner together before they drove home to tell my father Paul, a Granite City steelworker, about the day. Then, I was alone.

As a high school junior, I had considered my career options. Pursuing a teaching or nursing career were obvious opportunities but I did not have the enthusiasm and determination that these careers required. When my high school math teacher, Harry Lane, introduced engineering as another opportunity, I researched the engineering fields and course requirements. I applied to the University of Illinois because the university had a high national rating for its Civil and Environmental Engineering programs, affordable tuition and was less than a half-day drive from my home.

Professor Mete Sözen and Gloria Caban (photo courtesy of University of Illinois Archives)My undergraduate years (1965 – 1969) were full of focused work and learning. My advisor, Professor Mete Sözen, provided support, advice and encouragement. I studied, learned and received grades reflecting my efforts. Grace Wilson, a professor from the Department of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, became a mentor throughout my time at Illinois and beyond my college years. 

I joined the Society of Women Engineers as a sophomore and served as Secretary-Treasurer of the University of Illinois Student Section. As a junior, I worked up to 10 hours a week performing data and file management duties for several Civil Engineering Ph.D. candidates in Civil Engineering, and was inducted into Sigma Tau and Chi Epsilon. My senior year courses focused on Environmental Engineering and strengthened my determination to work to improve the environment. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering with High Honors in August 1969.

Only after classes began did I realize that few or no other women were in my engineering classes.  My classmates were friendly and none of them ever said that I should not be an engineer. In many situations, we helped each other and struggled together in courses that were difficult. I did feel that one professor singled me out by calling on me during every class. His actions may not have been as obvious to other class members, but I felt uncomfortable. However, he did not distract me from reaching my goals, and I always felt that I belonged at the University of Illinois. 

Juan Salinas and Tony Fiarato with Gloria Caban-McCutcheon. “They were mentors, role models, and my supervisors for the data management and file management work on their projects. They were wonderful role models who became my friends.”On August 30, 1969, William McCutcheon (also a civil engineering student, working on his Ph.D.) and I were married at St. John’s Chapel in Champaign. I received a Master of Science degree in August 1970, and job hunting was a top priority that summer.  With job offers in different locations, we focused on Madison, Wisconsin, where I was the first woman engineer hired by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR).  I started as a Plan Review Engineer for Sanitary Sewer Systems and Wastewater Treatment Systems and rose through the ranks until, in 1983, I became the Southeast Region Director.

When my daughters attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison, it rekindled my past interest in pursuing a Ph.D. In January 2011, I took a sabbatical from WDNR to pursue a Ph.D. in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies-Environment and Resources.  I completed my courses and thesis (Evaluation and Refinement of Envision as an Infrastructure Sustainability Rating System) and received my Ph.D. in May 2014. 

As I reflect on my education and work, I realize that I love to learn. I received an education at the University of Illinois that prepared me for a challenging and meaningful career. Learning is a gift. Caring for the world’s environment is important. Following in the footsteps of my daughters at UW Madison is an honor. FORWARD!