Construction management career perfect for the innately organized

March 15, 2003

By Gabriel Chen, written in 2003Ashleigh Thames Loaded with caffeine and eyelids heavy as bricks, it is 2 a.m. already and your head is beginning to shake. You have just completed page three of your 20-page paper that is due tomorrow before noon. That is a procrastinator, a character easily understood by college students, even as many of them try to cram the night before assignments are due.

For sophomore Ashleigh Thames, each morning, however, presents her with the opportunity to get things done more productively. Although getting things done in the morning as opposed to night may seem like one would run out of time, Thames says the efficiency in the morning makes up for the lost time dosing off late at night.

"I’m a morning person. I wake up at 5 a.m. every day to do all my homework since things seem so much clearer at that time. I would then go to class after that," she said.

Ashleigh, a Civil and Structural Engineering major, has no qualms about going early to bed and rising early. As a matter-of-fact, Thames, who aspires to be a construction manager, thinks her penchant for getting up early works in her favor with regards to the kind of industry she hopes to end up at in the future.

A construction manager, says Thames, typically goes to the worksite at seven in the morning and finishes work at 5 p.m. The manager must also oversee the actual construction process and ensure that the various stages of the construction process – from getting the construction permit to the completion of the construction – are completed in a timely and seamless fashion.

Growing up in Texas, Thames was surrounded at home by construction tools belonging to her step dad, a carpenter. Thames watched him work, gazing intently at the housing renovations he did or the sinks he changed. She helped him peel off wallpapers, sand walls and wood, and paint banisters. Thames and her family regularly participated in Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, nondenominational Christian housing organization that provides simple, decent, affordable houses to those who lack adequate shelter.

At a tender age, Thames realized her future lay not in the luxury and prestige of a Manhattan skyline-view office and a six-figure salary, but rather in the pragmatic reality of the construction site, where she would get the chance to do hands-on work and also learn to manage the muses and grouses of her blue-collar colleagues.

"I want to deal with mundane issues and not stray too far away from the working men," Thames said. "I’ve always been fascinated with people who can work with their hands. During one of our habitat experiences, a family that we were building the house for stopped by, and when they saw all that we had done for them, they were so happy and appreciative. That to me is the greatest feeling in the world."

Thames applied early to Duke, as she wanted a school in the South with a " big-name." She also wanted to go to a college with a good structural engineering program. Duke fitted snugly on both counts. Her first impression of Duke, as she recalls, was one of awe and admiration.

"It’s such a gorgeous school. It’s so clean and the architecture is unique. I find it interesting that West campus has adopted a gothic style, while East campus has a colonial style of architecture," said Thames, who will be pursuing a certificate in architecture at Duke.

Thames likes her Introduction to Structural Engineering class and her Statics class a lot. The latter taught her "the basics," such as the principles behind what makes a certain structure stand, while the former gave her a glimpse into the history of some of the world’s more famous structural achievements. Thames hopes to take some architecture-related classes in her junior year.

"Specifically, I’d like to take a drafting class, a class that would teach me the AutoCAD, and a class on urban planning. Also, I would like to learn more about the living conditions of people in Latin America," Thames said. The AutoCAD is t he world's most popular computer-aided drafting software product for the personal computer in both DOS and windows. Anything that can be drawn on a drawing board can be drawn by the AutoCAD.

In 2003, Thames inched a little closer to her dream of being in construction management when she snagged a summer internship with BE&K Construction. The company is one of the nation's largest engineering and construction firms, serving industries from pulp and paper to chemical and other process industries.

Thames traveled to Alabama and was mentored by Kenny Smith, superintendent of the electrical engineering department in the company. Working with Kenny, she helped design an 80-page Craft Planning Manual the company uses to educate its employees on the industry’s best practices. She also created new forms to be used in the procurement process and monitored the activities of subcontractors.

Thames said her internship experience was tough initially, as she had no family or relatives in Alabama. For the first month or so, she was lonely and afraid. Before Thames went to bed, she would double latch the door, lock the windows and push her suitcase in front of the door every night.

"I look back and now I laugh, but I was alone for the first time in my life," said Thames, breaking into a whimsical grin. "It was pretty scary at first, but my colleagues were very nice and reassuring. They gave me rides to work and I had dinner with them. Though many of the people on the field had never gone to college, they had great jokes and stories to share. A lot of the education at Duke is heavy in theory, so it was great to get the practical insight from these folks. As I was eager to learn, the office people and the men outside taught me the tricks of the trade, and I picked up a wealth of interpersonal skills just by talking and relating to them."

Thames does not regret coming to Duke, but if there was one thing she would change, it would be making Duke a little closer to Dallas. As to life after Duke, she hopes to do architecture in graduate school. Thames said she may apply to North Carolina State University, Columbia University, or the University of Texas at Austin.

"I’ve enjoyed my Duke experience so far. I really benefited from the small environment in the engineering school. Duke also offers a wealth of opportunities for us in terms of establishing and finding connections. I like the people here the best. Everyone is so friendly, and they are willing to give me information and help along the way," Thames said.

Ashleigh Thames' hometown is Carrollton, Texas.