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Building Bridges with “Legends”

Michelle Calcagno

Burnout and unhappiness are common experiences in nearly every field of work. Often, the underlying cause behind these feelings is regret in choosing a career that does not appeal to one’s strengths and weaknesses. At first a career path may seem attractive based on its stereotypical lifestyle, salary, and work environment. However, hidden are the realities of the job – the dynamics between team members, the struggle behind desk duty, and the difficulties of climbing the career ladder. To bring these realities to light, Michelle Calcagno, a University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Honors student studying civil engineering proposes a mentorship program with a unique twist – pairing students with already retired professionals. 

Before joining UIC to study civil engineering, Michelle constructed high rise buildings throughout the city of Chicago for eighteen years. As she developed her skills in a male-dominated industry, she became privy to its challenges and opportunities for growth. Looking to bridge the gap between the engineers that design a high-rise and the workers who must physically build it, Michelle decided to pursue a degree in civil engineering to advance her career. After interacting with classmates at UIC, she came to realize some of the factors that led to misery in the workplace were rooted in undergraduate education. When asked, most of her classmates could not name a reason for pursuing their career besides anticipating a certain salary and supposed lifestyle. Looking to change the cycle of disappointment, Michelle wants to pair students with professionals so that they can explore their career choices before committing their life to it.  However, rather than having students get in-touch with current industry professionals, Michelle believes retired professionals have the ability to give unfiltered opinions, the wisdom of a lifetime in a career, and the added benefit of encouraging students to ask the questions that truly matter to them. The program, named “Legends” after the retired trailblazers it incorporates, has a logo designed after that of the band Chicago to symbolize the city’s place as home and reminisce back to an era when the retired professionals were working. The “Legends” program aims to hold its inaugural event this spring with a national rollout in the subsequent fall. Michelle partnered with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) to pilot the program with the goal of connecting undergraduate students with retired seniors across the nation.

Michelle admits that providing an avenue for students to explore their career was not her only goal with “Legends.” As beneficial as the program is intended to be for students, Michelle hopes the program benefits the retirees equally as well. Last year, Michelle noticed one of her community’s most resilient and outspoken seniors become a victim of elder abuse. Knowing she had to help prevent similar situations from occurring, Michelle plans on educating students on elder abuse during Legend seminars and hopes the program helps form a sense of community around elders by keeping them a part of the industry in which they were once active members.

For others wishing to start their own programs, Michelle recommends finding an advisor or professor with whom to collaborate. “None of this would have been possible without the help of Professor Hossein Ataei, in the Department of Civil and Materials Engineering,” acknowledges Michelle. Beyond that, she says one should be very stubborn – everything takes multiple follow-ups and a constant drive to push through obstacles.  Following a successful launch this spring, Michelle hopes she can expand the program beyond ASCE to incorporate other majors and career paths as well. If you’re looking for inspiration, remember next time you’re passing by Aqua Tower, watching a play in Shakespeare Theater, or chilling in Millennium Park, to aim sky-high like the UIC student involved in their construction.