By Paige Dollevoet
Two UW-Madison engineering alumni share their dynamic career paths after graduation.
It’s hard to know what the future will hold after college is over. Looking ahead, it is difficult to see past first internships, first co-ops, and eventually first jobs. It is easy to forget that there have been many generations of students who have walked the same halls and streets of UW-Madison, and who are now in places in their careers they never thought they would be. Tracey Driessen and Ethan Proper are both graduates of UW-Madison with bachelor’s degrees in engineering. Though they both graduated from the UW-Madison College of Engineering, they have since had very different trajectories within their careers. They each look back over their paths in this article, which explores different journeys a UW-Madison engineering degree could take you.
Ethan Proper graduated from UW-Madison in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He, like many students, did not end up doing what he had planned. He enlisted in the Navy out of high school and was chosen for the Nuclear Enlisted Commissioning Program, which meant that he got his engineering degree while active in the Navy. After graduating, he worked as an Engineering Duty Officer in Washington and went on to get his master’s degree at MIT. In 2007, he started working for Navy Strategic Systems Programs, where he still works today. Strategic Systems Programs, or SSP, is responsible for the Trident II Strategic Weapon System, which is the primary weapon on the US OHIO-class submarines. The Navy has 14 OHIO-class submarines – defense submarines with long-range ballistic missiles that keep adversaries from using their weapons.
The Navy gave Proper valuable opportunities within the program, including moving to the United Kingdom for several years. After moving back to the United States, Proper began as a Missile Branch head working out of Washington, D.C. – a role he still holds today. His day-to-day roles include three main aspects: cost performance, schedule performance, and technical management. This keeps his schedule dynamic to the situation on any given day.
“In a non-COVID environment, I probably travel a quarter of the time,” Proper says. He would travel to places such as Washington State, Florida, Georgia, and Colorado on a regular basis.
His advice for current students at UW-Madison is that if you have a hobby you really enjoy, try to make it into a career. “People can see the passion in what you want to be doing,” Proper says. As proof that Proper is an example of being passionate about his work, he is now a Captain in the Navy, has won many awards including the Iraq Service Medal, and is also a co-owner of the Green Bay Packers.
Tracey Driessen graduated from UW-Madison in 1998 with a degree in civil and environmental engineering. She has always been interested in the environment and, when she first started college, expected to work as an environmental regulator at the EPA or DNR following graduation. However, she shifted her focus to the world of manufacturing after her internships and co-op led her to discover how much she enjoyed the way that she could have a direct positive impact on the environment as an environmental engineer working in industry.
In terms of getting internships and co-ops, Driessen says, “Career fairs are an amazing opportunity to put yourself out there, meet people from prospective companies, and get a head start on your career.” Without getting the internships through UW Madison, she may not have realized that manufacturing was such a good fit for her.
Counting internships and post-graduate experiences, Driessen has worked for four different paper companies and is now considered a subject matter expert in the area of environmental compliance within the industry. She has also had the opportunity to work in Canada for two years, while her husband, also a UW-Madison College of Engineering Alum, was on an expatriate assignment. During that period, she worked for a regulatory entity, the Alberta Energy Regulator. This experience expanded her understanding and perspective of both sides of environmental regulatory issues.
Driessen is currently based in Neenah, Wisconsin and works for Essity, a leading hygiene and health company where she holds the position of Environmental and Risk Manager for Essity’s seven North America Professional Hygiene facilities.
She describes her days as very dynamic, which she enjoys. Two major parts of her current job entail leading projects that will improve environmental and sustainability performance of the sites, and ensuring the sites are aware of upcoming environmental regulatory changes and are in full compliance with these regulations.
Some advice Driessen has for college students is, “If you’ve never heard of the Japanese concept Ikigai, look it up. I was introduced to this concept while working for the regulatory entity in Canada. If in your career, you can find the ‘center’ of a.) what you love to do, b.) what the world needs from you, c.) what you are good at, and d.) what you can be paid for, you will find your Ikigai – or your ‘reason for being.’ If you can find this in your career, you will feel happy and satisfied. If any one of these is too far off center, you will feel unsettled, and there is likely a better fit for you elsewhere.” She also emphasized not to despair if the first job you hold doesn’t work out how you want it to. It is important to know when something is right for you and when to move on.
There are lots of options for what can be done with a degree from the UW-Madison College of Engineering. Though Proper and Driessen’s paths were different, they both ended up successful and content with where they are today. This goes to show that a career path is very individualized. Everyone has the capability to be successful and happy in their future and to forge their own path.