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From One Student to Another: Wes Darling Graduates with Transportation on His Mind

Wesley Darling sits at a table with paper and books in front of him.

Wes Darling

Yi Wen, a PhD student in CEE’s transportation engineering program, conducted an interview with Wesley Darling, a senior who graduated this May from the program and is heading to the University of California, Berkeley to pursue a transportation engineering graduate degree.

Yi Wen: Why did you choose to study civil engineering and transportation?

Wes Darling: I chose to study civil engineering, and specifically transportation engineering, because I find the quantification and modeling of human behavior incredibly interesting, in particular how the design of certain systems and pieces of infrastructure affects that behavior. This extends to transportation because, as humans, we spend so much time thinking about and actually moving from place to place, and I am interested in learning how to make that time more efficient, enjoyable, and equitable.

YW: Tell us about your previous summer internship. What is it about and what have you learned from it?

WD: My previous summer internship was with BNSF Railway, where I was a track engineering intern based in Flagstaff, Arizona. The program was mostly experiential learning-based, and I spent much of the 10 weeks out on the rails shadowing the many different job functions required to build and maintain the company’s railroad tracks, which span the United States west of the Mississippi River.

Outside of job shadowing, I had a summer-long field project where I used several pieces of proprietary software to analyze track and tie quality over the western half of the Arizona portion of the transcontinental line. I created a composite document summarizing my findings along with a series of recommendations for high-priority track segments, and I presented the document to the Southwest Track Division Supervisor.

The biggest thing I learned from my railroad internship was how important the workers who actually construct infrastructure are to transportation and civil engineering as a whole. In our courses, we focus mainly on design and standards and rarely talk about the people who actually use our designs to construct the infrastructure.

My respect for the men and women dedicated to building infrastructure has grown so much after spending time at railroad construction and project sites, and I am very appreciative of them for welcoming me and teaching me about their roles in transportation.

YW: Anything to share about applying for graduate school? How to prepare for the GRE? What’s your timeline?

WD: My biggest piece of advice is to start early! Most program application deadlines are in mid-December, but I think I started researching schools and potential advisors in July or August. I believe I asked my professors about writing me a letter of recommendation in late September or early October, though I followed up regularly to let them know how my application process was going.

And, though I had every intention of completing the personal statements and other required essays during fall break and over the weekends of the semester, the semester workload sneaks up on you, and I found myself writing them “last minute” over Thanksgiving break (to me this was last minute because that was the last free time I had to devote to them until after fall exams, which would have been too late).

My last piece of advice would be to write your personal statements with a specific faculty or two in mind who you would be interested in working with (if you’re pursuing a research-focused program). I think this helped my applications get noticed and it gave me more to talk about when I ended up meeting the faculty in person at TRB or at the visitation weekend for the school.

I prepared for the GRE by taking a timed practice exam early on as a diagnostic so I could focus my preparations on the specific parts I needed to work on. Then I used an online question bank to take practice questions (for me, personally, I was working on improving my math score, so I almost solely did math questions). The website also had explanatory videos that I watched to help understand why I missed what I did. I also made a “cheat sheet” of all of the question types I frequently missed and would review this often. I took the GRE at the end of May before senior year and studied for it the entire month of May.

YW: What’s your plan for the future?

WD: My immediate plan for the future is to go to graduate school to continue my education and conduct more research in transportation. I will be attending the University of California, Berkeley in the fall for their master program in transportation engineering. I will likely pursue a PhD program after the master’s program concludes.

For the long-term, well, I am still sort of figuring that out. Right now, I hope to work for a technology company in some sort of transportation-related role. I am very interested in human interactions with transportation systems (and how we can design them to better facilitate their use) and would love to have some sort of position that deals with researching that.

YW: What do you like the most about UT?

WD: One thing I like most about UT is how open and available the professors have been to students. Many of the opportunities I have now would not have been possible had I not been able to form such close relationships with the faculty (both in class and in research work), and I can really attribute this to them always making themselves available to schedule a time to talk (even virtually during the coronavirus!). I have attended other universities, and this is not always the case, and it says a lot about the care the faculty have for the success of their students.

YW: What will you miss the most about UT and Knoxville?

WD: I will miss all of the faculty and students who have made UT home for me these past two years. As an out-of-state transfer student entering a program at a time when most other students would have spent several semesters getting to know each other, I was very worried about “finding my place” in the department.

I was truly concerned over nothing, as the students were immediately welcoming and I quickly found friends through class and organizations like ASCE and ITE. The faculty were very helpful in guiding me along my way, and I have learned more from them than I truly ever expected, especially from my undergraduate research work with Assistant Professor Candace Brakewood, and from the graduate coursework I took with Professor Chris Cherry. Though I will miss the students and faculty dearly when I leave, the relationships I have formed during my time at UT are ones I look forward to carrying with me wherever I go.

YW: What do you want to say to the students of next class?

WD: I’ve said a lot already, but really the most important thing I think is that there are so many great opportunities that you can and should take advantage of while you’re at UT, both academic and extracurricular, and really, all you have to do is ask. As a good friend of mine I met at UT once told me, “University is like a buffet; there are so many different things available for you to try, but it’s up to you to take the first bite.” Go Vols!