A Mechanical Engineer on a Mission

Alexandria McDonnell-Flanagin ’19

Armed with engineering skills and a passion for the sustainability movement, Alexandria McDonnell-Flanagin is turning her dynamic learning experiences at Syracuse into a career.

Portrait of Alexandria McDonnell-Flanagin.

When Alexandria McDonnell-Flanagin ’19 asked her high school physics teacher for a letter of recommendation to apply to college, she was disheartened when he told her he didn’t think her anticipated major of environmental science was the right one for her. “He said, ‘Environmental scientists identify problems. You like to solve problems,’” she recalls. Instead, he suggested she explore mechanical engineering.

Although she had an aptitude for math and physics, McDonnell-Flanagin was a little apprehensive about declaring a mechanical engineering major after hearing stories of challenging courses and withdrawals.

“I was nervous that the courses were going to be too difficult and that I would not be able to keep up,” she says. But she found a supportive network at Syracuse University. “I didn’t always have confidence in myself, but there were always people who were saying, ‘You can do this, you can get through it’—that’s what I needed to hear.”

A Place to Grow

McDonnell-Flanagin found the encouragement she needed to succeed and thrive thanks to the faculty and staff in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. “I really appreciate all of the time the professors invested in my education outside of class,” she says.

The open communication of professors was especially valuable to her. “For my senior capstone, there was an entire network of professors who I could go to for help,” she says. “From the faculty assisting in developing my engineering skills to career services helping progress my interpersonal skills, Syracuse College of Engineering and Computer Science supported me and allowed for the growth needed to become a prepared member of the field.”

McDonnell-Flanagin says Syracuse University has a lot to offer individuals who may want to try new things to find their niche. “The community here pushes you to be creative and pioneer possibilities,” she says. “Syracuse has embraced students’ out-of-the-box thinking. Students are getting opportunities to make changes and innovate for real companies before graduation. I enjoy being part of the community that inspires future students.”

Learning through Experience

McDonnell-Flanagin took every opportunity to enrich her education, focusing her attention on a movement she feels passionate about—sustainability. As an extension of the classroom experience, she interned with the Syracuse University Industrial Assessment Center (IAC), which is funded through the United States Department of Energy. As part of the IAC, she visited manufacturing facilities and conducted energy audits to identify and recommend ways to decrease their energy usage. Through this experience, she was required to write recommendations with advanced technical analyses. “This was the first experience that inserted me into real-world applications for the engineering field,” she says.

As an intern at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Global Energy Unit last summer, her project was to create a company-wide “scorecard” to help facilities track their progress toward the company’s sustainability goals. “The scorecard was designed for anyone—in maintenance or an engineer—to be able to interpret,” she says. “It is a good way for sites to see the trends of their energy usage.”

McDonnell-Flanagin appreciates her internship experiences as valuable extensions of her classes. “I met a diverse group of people who amplified my confidence, while providing me with constructive criticism, building me to become the engineer I am today,” she says.

Taking Engineering Abroad

The first year Syracuse University offered its engineering program in France, McDonnell-Flanagin was eager to go. “I was in the first cohort of students who went to Strasbourg,” she says. “It was an amazing opportunity, especially since I had never traveled beyond the east coast of the United States.”

McDonnell-Flanagin says it can be difficult for engineering majors to study abroad without extending the time it takes to earn their degree, but the structure of Syracuse University’s program removes that obstacle.“I had friends at other universities who could not experience engineering study abroad. Syracuse set up the program so students can study abroad and stay on track to graduate on time,” she says. In addition to Strasbourg in fall, Syracuse University offers a semester abroad option for engineering in Florence, Italy; Madrid, Spain; Dublin, Ireland; and other locations.

During an internship with a company in France, McDonnell-Flanagin worked in the field of energy systems and architecture. She shadowed engineers, worked in an office and was immersed in a French work environment, all of which she says gave her practical real-world experience.

In her spare time, McDonnell-Flanagin was determined to see Europe. Strasbourg is a quick bike ride away from Germany and allows an easy train ride to Paris or Switzerland. She traveled to 10 countries during her semester abroad. Of the experience, she says, “Traveling during this time not only brought me to a new level of independence and self-reliance, but it gave me the chance to interact with people and experience different ways of life. No matter how hard you try, these are things that you simply aren’t able to fully experience in a classroom.”

Combining Interests

With enthusiasm for current events and travel, she pursued a minor in geography. Minors can help students achieve more well-developed expertise in related areas of study, and McDonnell-Flanagin says geography classes gave her an additional perspective on her engineering career. “Although, engineering is a field often isolated from other expertise, everything is connected,” she says. “The implications of new technology will extend far beyond its defined abilities, and geography provides insight on these implications and how we can design with a more insightful approach.”

A class on the geopolitical issues of energy and who has access to it helped her understand the global impact of energy use, tied to her interest in sustainability. She hopes to someday be in a leadership role where she can help a company think of the big picture. “Everything is so connected,” she says. “You may work in one company, but the work you do affects everyone in the world.”

A Bright Future

Emboldened by her internships that showed the practical applications of her engineering degree, McDonnell-Flanagin was eager to start working after graduation. “I feel prepared going into a full-time job,” she says. “I am confident in the skills I have learned over the years and I know that I will be able to adopt new skills in the future.”

She attended a hiring event in Boston for Raytheon Company, a technology and innovation corporation that specializes in defense, civil government and cybersecurity solutions. She was impressed by the diversity of the hiring managers as well as Raytheon’s Energy Star Partner of the Year status and their commitment to sustainability goals. “To me, a company that cares about the environment and sustainability cares about its employees,” she says. “These goals can give prospective employees information that a company may not explicitly say.”

McDonnell-Flanagin will begin working at Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, a subsidiary of Raytheon Company, in June. She doesn’t know whether her specific engineering duties will partner with her passion for sustainability—but as someone who loves to solve problems, she will keep that interest active in her future endeavors. “I am not designing wind turbines or solar panels, but I will always approach projects with a sustainable state of mind,” she says.

Seeing how far she’s come from a first-year student who was unsure she could achieve her full potential as a mechanical engineering major, McDonnell-Flanagin is grateful for taking that leap of faith in herself. “I’m just so happy I chose Syracuse,” she says. “There were opportunities that I didn’t even know I had access to. I'm so grateful for all the experiences and people I met here.”

Shaina M. Hill

This story was first published on June 7, 2019 and last updated on .


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