Cultural Heritage and Tight-Knit Community Motivate Engineer

February 12, 2016

Growing up in the Karachay community within Clifton, NJ, most of Ece Fatima Koch’s friends and peers were first-generation Americans.

The Karachay hail from the North Caucasus – a territory that is now a republic of Russia. Several generations of Koch’s family lived in Turkey before her parents moved to the United States.

Language may often be a challenge. Cultural norms could get lost in translation. So one can only imagine the difficulties for Koch and her peers as teenagers navigating the American college-application process.

“The American higher education system can be very overwhelming for individuals who don’t have anyone in their family that has previously gone through it themselves,” Koch said. “So me and my friends often sought mentors.”

Clearly, it worked.

Koch, E.I.T., ENV SP, now 25, has been selected as one of the ASCE 2016 New Faces of Civil Engineering Professionals. She is a civil engineer for AECOM in New York City, and she is active in both professional organizations and the Karachay community serving as the same kind of mentor that proved so vital to her own development.

“Now that we have the second and third generations coming in, it’s more about giving back for my own generation,” said Koch who is fluent in English, Turkish and Karachay-Balkar.

“Now that we’ve gone through our education and established ourselves as young professionals, we want to be able to support the younger generations and ultimately through them the greater community.”

That might mean planning educational lectures or workshops for the community. It might mean sitting down with teens and helping them pick a college major, sort through college applications, or apply for jobs.

“We established a youth committee so that we may assist and support them any way along the way that we can,” Koch said.
Koch developed her own interest in engineering and architecture from an early age.

“I always had a strong admiration for the vast highway systems, airports, bridges and tunnels,” Koch said. “Living so close to New York City in a metropolitan setting, there was a lot going on around me in that sense. It was always very intriguing for me. I always wanted to learn more.”

She earned her bachelor’s at Drexel, and was able to transition a co-op at AECOM into a permanent role.

It is fitting for someone in whom cultural heritage and history is so ingrained that her favorite professional project to this point is one that honors community and history – the reconstruction of the Dumbo Historic District in Brooklyn. The work updates crucial infrastructure while maintaining the neighborhood’s historic cobblestone streets and rail tracks.

“It was a great opportunity,” Koch said. “I learned so much about roadway design while also getting exposure to historical landmark preservation. And it is great to know that when it is completed it’s going to add to the culture of a great American city and hopefully benefit the community.”

While Koch’s work takes her to New York, she still lives in Clifton. North Jersey is a hub of sorts for the Karachay. The American Karachay Benevolent Association has an active cultural center with programs for kids, events, and classes teaching traditional Karachay dance.

“It’s a very tight-knit community,” Koch said. “There isn’t a whole lot of us, so we are trying to preserve the culture and heritage for the generations to come.”

Koch was instrumental last year in establishing the first-ever scholarship for Karachay-American youth. Her group presented three students – two graduating high school students and one college student – with scholarships last year.

“Even as a kid growing up, I knew how important the advice of a mentor was,” Koch said. “It helps you stay aligned with your goals and aspirations. To now be able to give back to the community within which I was raised is really motivating and hopefully an inspiration to the kids.”

ASCE’s New Faces of Civil Engineering recognition programs highlight the next generation of civil engineering leaders. By showcasing young, diverse, talented engineers the program shows that engineering is an exciting profession open to everyone. Ten honorees are selected by ASCE in each of two divisions: collegiate and professional.

The honorees will be recognized during Engineers Week, which starts Feb. 21, and at ASCE’s annual Outstanding Projects And Leaders (OPAL) Gala, March 17, in Arlington, VA.

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