CERL internship kick-starts alumna’s career

Carolyn EberhardThere was never any doubt that Carolyn Eberhard (BS 83) would attend the University of Illinois. Indeed, it was the only university to which she applied. Growing up in small town Melvin, Ill., with a father and brother who graduated from Illinois, in her mind it was a given that she would do the same.  

As a student, Eberhard always had to balance her time between her studies and earning a paycheck to afford tuition and expenses. When a friend told her she could make slightly above minimum wage as a summer intern at the U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL) – an unusual and tempting prospect for undergraduates at that time – Eberhard did not hesitate to apply. She was soon hired as a summer intern, transitioned to part-time worker during the school year and eventually took a full-time position there after she graduated.

“My first job [at CERL] was horrible,” Eberhard recalled. “It was transportation planning that didn’t need to be done. It served no purpose. It was boring. I was just about to quit when I met Jerry Benson [BS 75] and Joe Matherly [MS 73]. And I guess they were looking for a junior engineer and I was looking for something better to do, and they said ‘come on over and work for us,’ and I did.”

Benson has many memories of Eberhard, who he calls one of the best new engineers he has ever worked with.

“I was a researcher with [CERL] in Champaign when Carolyn Howk, now Eberhard, joined our research team,” Benson said. “She was originally assigned to another research team who were working on environmental policies. Our team leader tasked me with getting Carolyn up-to-speed on our current project, which was to develop a wastewater treatment system for the stream coming off of Army vehicle washing operations. After a few weeks and after a field trip to an Army base, Carolyn turned to me as we were preparing to leave and said, ‘I am so happy to be working on something meaningful with real engineers.’”

“It was my first engineering job out of school, and I had so much to learn,” Eberhard said. “The most important skill I learned from Jerry and Joe was the art of team building and empowering the staff. All of this was done at a time when those words were not in anyone’s vocabulary. This is just how Jerry and Joe ran the group.”

“It was just so much fun. Those guys were great,” Eberhard said.

After working several years for the government, Eberhard made the leap to private industry.  While working for Parsons Corporation, she tackled a wide range of environmental projects as both an engineer and a manager.  She finished her career at Parsons as a senior manager on chemical weapons demilitarization projects around the world.  She retired when her children were born.

Eberhard currently lives in Sierra Madre, Calif., where she is a self-described “professional volunteer” on the board of a local organization. Her son will soon be a student at Illinois, in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Eberhard did her best to redirect him to CEE.

“We have a farm in northern California and I had him fly up there and drive a bobcat for an hour, and play in the dirt and dig holes,” Eberhard said. “I said, ‘now get off that and tell me you still want to be an electrical engineer.’ And he said, ‘yeah, mom.’ So that was my best shot, was that bobcat.”

Fortunately, she still has time to work on her daughter.