Nicola van den Heever knew she was good at math, science and problem-solving in high school and that she wanted to help those living in low-income communities but was unsure what a career with those aspects would look like.
She found the answer in the Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Department and the Engineering for Developing Communities program at CU Boulder.
“One of the primary reasons I came to CU was for the engineering focus in terms of helping people. I have been able to work with, and for, some phenomenal institutions and organizations in my time here and have gotten a wide range of experiences,” she said. “I was really given an open world here and a chance to go out and pursue the things I am passionate about, and for that, I am grateful.”
Van den Heever is graduating with a bachelor’s in civil engineering and a master’s in civil systems engineering with certificate in engineering for developing communities. She was a Boettcher Scholar through all her years, maintaining a 3.8 GPA during her undergraduate work and a 3.9 GPA during her graduate coursework.
She also took second place in the senior design project and wrote one of the top five undergraduate theses in her class. Outside engineering, she completed a minor in leadership through the Presidents Leadership Class, where she had her own leadership role as staff coordinator.
Her lasting impact at the college though comes from her deep involvement and commitment to the Engineers Without Borders CU Boulder chapter. She served as an officer, a program manager for the Rwanda project and finally as chapter president. During that time, she helped implement sweeping changes to stabilize and grow the program.
She said the EWB program was one of the main reasons she came to the university and one of her first stops as a freshman upon arrival, calling it an “automatic fit” because of her parents’ past of living in South Africa and the time she has spent in neighboring countries. Her first trip with the program to Rwanda as a program manager investigating rainwater catchment systems was a formative experience.
“I learned a lot, not only in terms of engineering, but from interacting with communities, translators and leaders throughout the project to see how we could improve those systems and how they were actually being used. That helped me become an engineer that is focused on people,” she said.
Professor Paul Chinowsky has worked with van den Heever since she got to campus and had high praise for her.
“She has continuously showed the dedication, focus and curiosity that make a great student, and that will enable her to make the changes in the world that she is so passionate about,” he said.
Professor Ross Corotis agreed.
“Nikki is the most exceptional undergraduate I have encountered in my several decades in teaching. In addition to being one of the top academically, she is dedicated completely to the benefit and welfare of those in our society that are less fortunate. She is respectful and considerate of everyone and displays true grace,” he said.
Van den Heever is planning on pursuing a PhD and is interested in policy-making as she goes forward in the field. That is due, in part, to a recent job with the World Bank, which she will continue next semester. She said her time there has shown her how policy can result in big changes on the ground, even if it is frustrating and slow at times.
“That is where a lot of framework needs to be put in place,” she said. “Engineers have done a really good job of being on the ground, but the institutional framework is where the next steps will come, and that is where my skill set is.”
She said she loved the faculty in the College of Engineering and Applied Science and was appreciative of their time and belief in her. She said she was also grateful for everyone else who helped her take advantage of all the opportunities she has enjoyed here.
“I want to express the gratitude I have for all of the people around me that have made this possible,from my family and friends to faculty, staff and counselors. Whether that be for late-night coffee runs or thought-sharing and professional guidance,” she said. “It’s easy to forget that when you achieve something, it’s not just you all alone. A huge part is the people around you.”