SRU student and ‘soccer mom’ poised to become civil engineer thanks to new program


Student in front of North Hall

Karah Donahey, a senior at Slippery Rock University, is part of the first cohort of civil engineering majors ready to graduate this spring after the program was launched in 2019. A mother of two daughters who previously worked in the construction industry, Donahey already has a job offer waiting for her at PennDOT, where she is interning. 

Dec. 15, 2022

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — When Karah Donahey started working in the construction industry, she didn't want to be known as the "young blonde girl." She just wanted to be thought of as someone who knew what they were doing. And while she succeeded in that goal - she worked her way up to becoming a supervisor at Pennwest Homes, a company in Emlenton that builds modular homes -Donahey felt she needed something more: a college degree.

Now a 33-year-old senior civil engineering major at Slippery Rock University and self-described "soccer mom," she is poised to advance her career further than she could by settling for the status quo. As a single mother of two girls and working in a male-dominated field, that's no easy task. But Donahey is well on her way with a job offer waiting for her as a civil engineer after she graduates next spring.

"As a young woman working in construction, it can be very hard to get anywhere," Donahey said. "If you don't have an extensive background or the degree, employers just kind of look right past you."

Donahey found opportunity at Pennwest Homes. She worked there from 2013-20 after graduating from Cranberry Area High School in 2008. Donahey started on the structural side of modular home manufacturing, installing floors and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. She then went on to supervise a team of five workers in the quality control department where they were responsible for inspecting the finished product and working with computer-aided drawings.

"I tried to go as far as I could up the ladder and I was in a very good position and I really enjoyed what I was doing, but once I got to that point, it was like everything was a lateral move," Donahey said. "I had to either move across multiple companies or get a degree."

Donahey started taking classes at Butler County Community College while she was still working at Pennwest, before transferring to SRU in 2020 and becoming a full-time student.

"Tuition was way cheaper at SRU for civil engineering compared to the schools in Pittsburgh," said Donahey, a native of Cranberry, Venango County, who now resides in Fenelton, Butler County with her daughters, ages 12 and 8, and her boyfriend. "That would have been a lot of driving to the city. SRU is rural and close to home and everyone's more laid back and willing to help."

Donahey continues to gain workforce experience while attending SRU. She is currently employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation through the Commonwealth Public Service Internship program. She started her internship in October 2021 and continues to accrue hours when she's not taking full-time classes. Her PennDOT work is both remote and at the district office in Indiana, where she contributes to the bridge-design unit, analyzing hydrology reports and load checks, while making sure future bridge designs are structurally sound with the proper culvert pipes installed.

PennDOT has a job waiting for her in May after she graduates to become a civil engineer.

"I didn't realize how many different routes I could go with an engineering degree until I came to SRU," Donahey said. "I thought I was coming here to be a civil engineer, but I can go into environmental, geotechnical, or structural engineering, as well as project management, where you can apply a little bit of everything and not just specialize in one thing."

SRU currently offers programs in civil, industrial and systems, mechanical, and petroleum and natural gas engineering. All four majors have been added in the last six years. Donahey is part of the first cohort from the civil engineering program that launched in fall 2019.

"Being a non-traditional student and part of a new program, it's been a great experience," Donahey said. "The professors are open to involving us in the whole process and getting our feedback, which has made it more enjoyable and benefited me in the long run. We're not just learning out of a book or looking at PowerPoint slides, we're learning by doing with hands-on classroom activities, and by having class discussions and having speakers who are working out in the field coming to class."

More information about SRU's engineering programs is available on the University's School of Engineering webpage.

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