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Kirsten Krajnc

Student finds niche in civil engineering

Kirsten Krajnc

(Photo: Armando Tura)

As a teenager, Kirsten Krajnc says she had no idea what engineers did and in Grade 11 was all set to pursue a degree in environmental sciences.

At the time, her father was doing a government job swap at Indigenous Services Canada (ISC). The stories he told her about the high-impact work ISC engineers were doing turned her academic plans upside down.

Kirsten did a lot of research and rushed around to change courses at her high school in Delta, BC, so she could get into engineering. One of the main reasons she eventually chose UVic was for the hands-on experience through its co-op program.

“I wish I had known about engineering and understood it when I was younger,” she says. “The whole problem-solving aspect of engineering is so cool.”

First co-op at ISC

For her first co-op at UVic, Kirsten was thrilled to get a position at ISC in Vancouver, working alongside the engineers who focus on community infrastructure. In one project, ISC needed to determine how 60 remote coastal bands would have the food and medical supplies they needed in case of a tsunami. ISC hired private companies to calculate the danger zone of such an event and where to store emergency supplies.

“I had to summarize the companies’ reports and turn their highly technical language into more everyday language,” she says. “It was so interesting and challenging. I really loved it.”

Back at UVic, a friend invited Kirsten to the First Peoples House on campus for a mixer with Gwaii Engineering. The Victoria-based company was so impressed with Kirsten and her experience at ISC that they offered her a co-op position.

Diverse tasks at Gwaii Engineering

In a sense, Kirsten got two co-ops in one: Gwaii Engineering and Islander Engineering are two related companies, both housed in the same downtown location. Islander provides environmental and infrastructure engineering services for all types of clients, while Gwaii accepts a much broader variety of multi-faceted projects, specifically for First Nation communities.

Kirsten worked for each company. At Islander, she focused on finding mitigation strategies as part of stormwater management plans, which are necessary when a new building changes the way water drains.

“It was a huge learning curve,” says Krajnc. “The amount I learned on the technical side was intense!”

At Gwaii, her work involved creating a very large and detailed spreadsheet outlining all the types of grants available to Indigenous groups in BC.

“Gwaii is not a typical engineering company – they want to build long-lasting relationships with Indigenous communities to help make their lives better,” Krajnc explains. “Gwaii tries to help with anything, even if it’s outside of their usual services.”

A highlight of the co-op was when a supervisor at Gwaii asked her to travel by floatplane to Sechelt to attend a career fair for Indigenous high school students. The same young woman who had known next to nothing about engineering a few years earlier was now telling young people what it’s like to work in the field.

Advice for new students

While Kirsten's co-ops provided amazing work experiences, life as a university student hasn’t been without its challenges. When she first started her degree, she was aware of being part of a minority as a woman in engineering. And Kirsten says she found first-year challenging. The advice she’d give new students just starting out is to hang in there.

“It was scary going into first-year. I let what people said about engineering worry me,” she says. “But it doesn't have to be scary. There are a lot of resources to help and you don’t have to finish your degree in four years – you can go at your own pace.”

When she selected her program area, Kirsten found her niche. She says she loves being part of the Department of Civil Engineering, especially its newness and focus on sustainability.

“I never knew that asphalt and cement could be so cool!” she says with a laugh.

Looking to the future

Kirsten doesn’t know precisely what she wants to do after graduation, but she does have a sense of how she wants to make a difference.

“I hope to make an impact in terms of the environment and also to influence and encourage women to go into STEM,” she says.

Not long ago, she gave her cousin’s four-year-old, Monroe, a book called “Rosie Revere Engineer.” Monroe, nicknamed Roe, has since memorized the story and says she wants to be an engineer when she grows up, just like Kirsten.

“I’ve seen that I literally have made a difference in a four-year-old’s life. I’d like to make a difference in other girls’ lives too,” Krajnc says. “To be able to be a role model for Roe or for other girls makes me so happy. I’m really passionate about that.”

 Read more student stories.

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