A Gratitude-Fueled Adventure

Sarah Dudney had just enrolled at Lehigh when opportunity came calling in the guise of a group email.

It was the fall semester of 2013. The email, from the officers of the freshman class, invited students to the “Class of 2017 Thanks a Donor” dinner.

Dudney, a civil engineering major with a Choral Arts Scholarship and several other grants, signed up to attend.

“I knew I wouldn’t be at Lehigh without donor support,” she says. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to thank them.”

Dudney did not meet any of her benefactors at the dinner, but she did strike up a conversation with Patrick Kenny of Thornton Tomasetti, one of the world’s top structural engineering firms.

“I happened to sit next to Mr. Kenny, and he gave me his business card. It said he was a structural engineer in New York City. That sounded like the coolest job to me—designing Manhattan’s skyline.

“Mr. Kenny told me to contact him when the time came to apply for internships. I decided I wanted to work for this firm. I went home and looked it up and saw how impressive their resume was. I was hooked.”

Although she was not yet experienced enough for an internship, Dudney began emailing Kenny regularly to ask questions about her courses and to remind him of her interest in Thornton Tomasetti.

To Italy and to China

Meanwhile, other opportunities beckoned.

In May of 2015, after Dudney’s sophomore year, the Lehigh University Choir toured Italy. Dudney, the choir’s manager, had chosen to attend Lehigh in part because it allows non-music majors to sing in the choir, which tours overseas every other year.

After returning from Italy, Dudney flew to China, where she had an Iacocca International Internship to study at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei, one of Lehigh’s international partner schools. There, she worked with a USTC professor who studies how wildfires propagate on hilly terrain.

“I did research in a fire science lab with a big wind tunnel,” she says. “We built test beds with various slopes to see how wildfires would spread over different hills. Never in my life did I think I would get paid to play with fire!”

The USTC program also organized field trips and other activities.

“We took trips every weekend,” says Dudney. “We went to Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, the Yellow Mountains. It’s amazing that Lehigh can provide so many students with so many opportunities. I could never have gone to China like that on my own. I was so moved that I wrote a thank-you note to Lee

“Lehigh puts students of every economic status on the same playing field for international opportunities. This wouldn’t be possible without loyal donors and alumni like Mr. Iacocca.” (Iacocca, a member of Lehigh’s Class of 1948, is the former president of the Ford Motor Co. and former CEO of Chrysler Corp.)

A world-class university

Her time in China gave Dudney, who has blonde hair and blue eyes, “a different lens on diversity.

“There were times I thought I must be the only blonde person in a city of 7 million people,” she says. “It seemed like people turned their heads to look at me everywhere I went. It was an interesting experience to stick out so much.

“I was also illiterate. I couldn’t read anything. I had to rely on other people for help. It gave me a new respect for immigrants.”

Dudney returned to Lehigh for the fall semester of her junior year in 2015, and then spent the spring at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore through Lehigh’s study abroad program. NTU was ranked 13th among world universities, and second among Asian schools, in the 2016 QS World University Rankings.

“I really wanted to do a semester abroad,” she says. “It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done in my whole life. I would recommend that to any student. It’s possible, if you talk to your academic adviser early and get ahead of your required classes.”

Dudney found NTU a different challenge from Lehigh.

“Lehigh is more work because it requires more homework and gives more quizzes. NTU puts more emphasis on the final exams, which are really difficult, harder than at Lehigh. It’s a totally different structure.

“I feel as though I get much more practice with the material I’m learning at Lehigh. In Singapore, it was easy to slack off and not learn the material well. The experience made me realize how privileged I am to attend such a rigorous university.”

At NTU, Dudney took courses in hydrology, international relations and steel design using the European code. She also completed her Lehigh music minor by taking a class in the gamelan, the traditional ensemble of tuned percussion instruments in Indonesia.

As she had done the year before in China, Dudney sampled the wide variety of ethnic cuisines available in Singapore—Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Malaysian—many of which are sold by families renting canteens along the streets.

She took weekend trips to Malaysia and Brunei, visiting caves and an orangutan preserve. She flew to Taipei, capital of Taiwan. And in Palang Karaya, a city in the Indonesian state of Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, she spent a week with Carlie Skellington ’15, who was teaching English at a Muslim grade school.

A new esteem for Thornton Tomasetti

After studying in Singapore, Dudney came full circle with Patrick Kenny and started a summer internship with Thornton Tomasetti in its New York headquarters.

By now, she had acquired a first-hand knowledge of many of the buildings Thornton Tomasetti has designed. In Shanghai, she visited the Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest building, at 2,073 feet, and the world’s second-tallest structure. In Taiwan, she toured Taipei 101, which ascends to 1,667 feet and implements state-of-the-art damper technology.

In Singapore, Dudney visited Star Vista, which she calls one of the world’s most architecturally appealing buildings. In Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia, she toured the Petronas Towers, formerly the world’s tallest building and still its tallest twin towers.

During her summer with Thornton Tomasetti, Dudney learned practical skills: how to use software more skillfully, how to read shop drawings and implementation plans, how to check structural connections.

She came away with a greater appreciation for Lehigh’s impact on the wider world.

“Lehigh is much more than your classes,” she says. “It’s really a family of all the people who have come before as well as the people who are here now.

“It’s amazing how well-connected Lehigh is to the outside world. With so many Lehigh alumni working for Thornton Tomasetti, it’s easy to see Lehigh’s impact on the world’s skyline.”

On May 22, Dudney will sing the National Anthem at Lehigh’s 149th Commencement. The following day, she will join the University Choir when it departs on a 10-day tour of Spain.

Next fall, Dudney will head to Seattle to enroll in the University of Washington’s master’s program in structural engineering. There, she has a full stipend to conduct research into seismic design for structures that lie in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which runs from Vancouver Island through Washington and Oregon to northern California.

“Lehigh sets its students up professionally,” she says. “It set me up really well for applying to graduate schools. Many of my friends and I were able to go to our top choice in schools.”

As she leaves Lehigh, Dudney thinks back occasionally to the Class of 2017 Thanks a Donor dinner.

“Through the simple act of saying thank you at that dinner, I was able to get a dream internship in New York City, which has encouraged me to continue my studies in structural engineering in Washington.

“I can’t say enough about all the experiences I was able to have here. Lehigh is very generous with financial aid. There’s absolutely no way I would be here without the generous alumni who have donated to Lehigh.

“I’ve vowed over and over to myself that I will donate to Lehigh someday when I’m in a position to.”

Story by Kurt Pfitzer


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