Q&A with Alumna Cynthia Guidry '92
Nov. 14, 2016 - Cynthia Guidry received her bachelor’s in civil engineering from UCI’s Samueli School of Engineering in 1992. She was the first in her family to go to college, and she went on to earn an MBA at Pepperdine University. Today she is the deputy executive director of the Planning and Development Group for Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA). She recently returned to campus to share her story with students as part of the UCI African American Alumni Speaker Series.
How and when did you know you wanted to be an engineer?
I enjoyed tinkering with things at a young age, like rebuilding a radio, so I initially thought I wanted to be an electrical engineer. In high school I enjoyed drafting class so then I thought maybe I should be an architect. However, once I began filling out college applications, civil engineering became an attractive degree choice because I recognized the career opportunities it offered.
Why did you choose UCI for your college education?
One major reason was its proximity to home. I decided to stay at home with my parents and commute my entire time at UCI, which was a significant financial savings for my parents. Second was the school’s reputation; UCI was a young yet rapidly growing institution known for attracting and graduating smart well-rounded students equipped for their profession. Finally, UCI’s appealing design and layout was inviting and attractive. I attended several fun campus events prior to applying to UCI and completely enjoyed watching students in the center park; I couldn't think of a better environment to spend my college years.
What was your biggest challenge as an engineering student and what were your strategies for overcoming it? As a young African American female in a male-dominated major, there were many engineering classes that I just did not feel comfortable sitting in or would question whether I should be in at all. Just getting into a study group seemed difficult. The major was not only difficult, but the odds were half of the students would not graduate. I recall being reminded of this reality several times during my freshman year. What a challenge. Thankfully, I was introduced to the UCI chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and it really became an instant support network. I was able meet fellow undergrads going through the same experience as I was, as well as meet UCI Black Engineering alumnae who encouraged and inspired me to hang in there.
Name your favorite class or professor at UCI.
Do you have a favorite UCI memory? Outside of graduation day, there were several fun memories at UCI. One of the best moments was when I served as the UCI National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter president, and UCI hosted a NSBE Leadership Regional Conference for several days on campus. We pulled together speakers who spoke on technical, entrepreneurial and social consciousness topics for nearly 150 attendees. Organizing that memorable conference, obtaining financial donations and sponsorship by local Irvine technical firms, and getting the support from UCI made me proud to be an Anteater and gave me confidence and trust in a school where I was in the minority. It gave me a valuable experience that translated into my professional career.
Describe your role at LAWA.
Today, I work for the city of Los Angeles, Department of Airports, commonly known LAWA, which operates both Los Angeles International Airport and Van Nuys General Airport. As deputy executive director over LAWA’s Planning and Development Group, I am fortunate to lead nearly 400 professionals, who are engineers, architects, planners, inspectors, administrators and more. We are responsible for planning, designing and building the airports’ $14 billion capital improvement programs to deliver world-class facilities of which our entire region can be proud. Most recently, my team was responsible for developing the concept plans for the $5.5 billion Landside Access Modernization Program, which includes an Automated People Mover, Consolidated Rent-a-Car Facility, and Intermodal Transportation Facilities, which will dramatically improve access in and around LAX. We also are in the midst of construction for a new $1.3 billion Midfield Satellite Concourse (MSC) that will bring new aircraft gates to LAX.
What is your proudest moment as an engineer?
The day I received my Professional Engineering License! Another special time was early in my career when I was managing a new park development project in Los Angeles, and although we had quality design plans, I had a tough construction contractor who had underbid the job and challenged nearly everything on the plans. It seemed as though my days were filled with disputes, negotiations and massive letter writing! However, we completed the project and I learned several lessons that built up my confidence as an engineer.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in your field of civil engineering/transportation?
Transportation growth is at full throttle. In the last several years, the growth I see is unprecedented, and we simply can’t build our infrastructure fast enough to keep up with the demand for air travel. Plus, travelers want more options, are relying heavily on technology and want fast time-certain personal services. So our need to build things quicker, smarter and sustainable requires creativity, flexibility and use of alternative delivery strategies, such as design-build over traditional schedule driven approaches. It's certainly an exciting time in our industry, but the challenge is advancing multiple projects simultaneously to meet the needs of today and tomorrow.
As an African American and a woman, can you share any obstacles and how you managed?
Unfortunately, we still have challenges in this area. Sometimes you may not have the opportunity to compete for a job or are valued less than others, but you cannot allow that to sway who you are and deter you from pursuing greater endeavors. You have to give your best in no matter how small or large a project and let your performance speak for itself. I was the first in my family to attend college, and fortunately I quickly realized I needed support and tangible examples of success. You have to surround yourself with a support network. Similarly, as with the support of NSBE in college, I found support in the professional world with mentors and colleagues I could trust and confide in for encouragement.
If you could give your college self some good advice, what would it be?
Remember to enjoy your college days, but never forget why you’re there. Learn as much as you can and be determined to leave the campus with a degree in hand! Engineering will be an unregrettable career choice because it teaches critical thinking skills and complex problem solving. Lastly, don't be discouraged if you didn't succeed in a class as hoped. Join a study group, bug the heck out of the professor, do extra work and press through. Your college days will move fast, but they are worth every bit of your time.
How do you like to spend your free time?
With my family. My career demands long work days, so the time that I have available is definitely spent on my husband and children.
- Lori Brandt