A Career Without Borders: Erica Spiritos
Civil and environmental engineering alumna Erica Spiritos hopes that, if she ever does decide to settle down to office work, she can do so with a bucket of Amazonian mud under her desk. However, for now, she is searching for opportunities and positions that will allow her to work outdoors and to help communities across the globe with her engineering knowledge.
Spiritos began traveling internationally with her family when she was younger, and during high school was involved with a community service project in Panama. When she arrived at Carnegie Mellon, she already knew she wanted to be involved with an organization called Engineers Without Borders (EWB). Upon learning that there wasn't an EWB branch at Carnegie Mellon, she and her peers started one, and they went to Ecuador using EWB funds to help the Tingoans with water distribution.
"After Ecuador, I got hooked on the idea of working abroad—traveling the world and immersing myself in new places and cultures," she says. "So those were the kinds of opportunities that I sought out—whether by searching online or networking with people who work internationally."
Spiritos returned to Ecuador after graduating and led a community service trip for 21 high school students through a group called Road Less Traveled. They worked on building a school and helped teach English to the community. She is now interning in Israel, where she is doing both engineering and policy work at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES).
"AIES is a place where Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and Americans come together to build peace through joint initiatives addressing regional environmental issues," she says. "Right now, I'm conducting an energy audit of Israel's water policy to better understand the burden that the water sector places on the energy sector as a result of energy-intensive processes such as seawater desalination."
Her CMU engineering background has helped her to make productive use of the independence she has at AIES, where she is able to cater her daily activities toward her own interests, but she often has to figure out what she should be doing on her own.
"The possibilities to create or take part in exciting opportunities at CMU are endless if we take advantage of the spirit of entrepreneurism and innovation, and I am finding that the same applies to my work at AIES," she says.
Spiritos encourages students who are interested in similar opportunities to consider not only what sort of job they want to be doing, but also why that excites them, where would be the best fit, and with whom they would like to work.
"You know more than anybody (including your parents, your friends, your professors, and the career counselors) about what kinds of opportunities will be meaningful for you. The best thing you can do is to trust your gut in navigating your own path and creating your own journey—however scary or unsettling or unconventional it may be."
For students concerned about the costs, she explains that there are a number of scholarship and funding options, whether for undergrads interested in service projects abroad, or graduates who want to be involved internationally. She was lucky enough to discover a MASA scholarship sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, which is paying for half of her time in Israel.
Even for students who aren't ultimately interested in living abroad for their professional careers, she argues that traveling is an extremely valuable experience.
"Living in another country and learning to speak a foreign language (or two in my case—Hebrew and Arabic) definitely gets me out of my comfort zone and exposes me to a larger world, to a whole new set of perspectives, to new cultures, to new ideas and systems of operation," she says. "I think traveling gives us the opportunity to learn about the world, but also the chance to discover ourselves—our values, our perspectives, our comfort levels, our ability to adapt to different situations, our likes and dislikes. And on an interpersonal level, I think traveling can make us more compassionate and empathetic toward others."
Photo: Erica Spiritos with government officials from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda