Arielle Scalioni’s path to a bachelor’s degree began in an Amazon rainforest, helping build a church that doubles as a medical clinic.
“I spent a month there after high school. It really helped me see the effect you could have in helping construct all these infrastructures for communities,” said Ms. Scalioni, who received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering as part of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga commencement ceremonies in McKenzie Arena.
“That helped me choose civil engineering as my major.”
But this is not “the shortest distance from point A to point B is a straight line” story.
Ms. Scalioni’s path is full of twists and turns.
Born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Ms. Scalioni and her family emigrated to the US when she was four years old. Her parents de ella, Carlos and Arlete, moved a lot in search of better opportunities for the family, eventually arriving in Harrison, around eight years ago.
Ms. Scalioni spent the bulk of her formative years in Massachusetts, Florida, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, but her mother suggested she should have an experience outside of the country.
“I’m a third-culture kid,” she explained. “That’s part of our blood. We’ve always liked to move and experience new places.
“Having moved from Brazil to the US, I moved back there to study in a boarding school for high school. I then decided to take a break because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study in college.”
It wasn’t a break in the true sense of the word, though. Ms. Scalioni enrolled at the Wildwood (Georgia) College of Health and Evangelism, now known as the Wildwood Center for Health Evangelism—a missionary school with an emphasis on health.
Ms. Scalioni soon found herself heading back to Brazil on a missionary trip to the Amazon rainforest, working with an organization called Salva-Vidas Amazônia—part of the Missões Noroeste ministry in Brazil.
Participating in the building of the church created an inspirational lightbulb moment.
“The villages there are very disconnected and you have to travel by river to each village,” she said, “and we were there to build a church. The church is not just a place where people would be able to go and worship. It’s where they would be able to come together for community events, and whenever people go there as part of traveling medical clinics, it’s a place that could be their hub.
“When I saw how excited the people were to see that church being built and that it would bring them a lot of joy in the future, I realized that I could be doing this at a larger scale if I got an engineering degree.”
Seeing a female presence in civil engineering ‘excited me’
“Ever since I was really young, I liked to take things apart and see how they worked,” Ms. Scalioni said, “and in engineering, you need to have a basis in STEM, which is math, physics and science.
“I get a lot of that from my dad. Even though he didn’t get a college degree, he has always been an entrepreneur, and he taught me to be curious and to have that curiosity to know how things work and how things come together.”
When Ms. Scalioni returned to the area, she learned of the engineering partnership between Chattanooga State Community College and UTC. After taking care of her prerequisites, she transferred to the University.
She originally started down an electrical engineering road “because I thought it could be a place where, as a woman, I could be more accepted,” she said. “A lot of people, when they think about civil engineering, think mainly construction and that you’re out in the field.”
While she didn’t immediately envision herself as a civil engineer, she soon found that a career could be an option.
“When I started taking more focused classes with female engineering professors, I realized it was a lot broader than I thought,” she said. “That female presence, especially in civil engineering, excited me.”
She also landed an electrical engineering internship with Black & Veatch, a worldwide engineering firm with more than 65 US locations—including Chattanooga. Despite being an electrical engineering intern, Black & Veatch gave Ms. Scalioni the chance to shadow civil engineers.
“That’s where I saw that civil engineering was more the field for me,” Ms. Scalioni said. “It brought me back to the thoughts that I had in the Amazon when I was helping build that church for the community.”
Blazing trails for Latina women engineers is a ‘responsibility, too’
Switching from electrical to civil engineering meant more time in school, and Ms. Scalioni’s total time between Chattanooga State and UTC is six years.
But she said the extra time was worth it: A full-time position at Black & Veatch awaits following graduation.
“I’m so excited that I’m graduating with a major that suits me best,” she said. “It’s brought me a lot of joy. It’s brought me a lot of happiness.”
When Scalioni crossed the McKenzie Arena stage, she received that degree on behalf of her entire family.
“I’m a first-generation student, so college and furthering my education has always been a goal for myself and my family,” she said. “My parents worked hard to give us a better life here. It means a lot to get an education, to be able to get a job and give back to them what they’ve given to me.”
Her mom recently told her, “It’s as if this was her degree that she was receiving,” Ms. Scalioni said. “Every success I’m having, she she’s taking it as if it was her own.
“I think that’s so true because I’m only able to be here and be able to study because of the support that they’ve been able to give me throughout my college education.”
She has become a trailblazer of sorts in her own family. Ella’s sister, Tabata, is now studying computer science at UTC.
Ms. Scalioni also wants to be a role model for Latina women engineers.
“We are seeing a lot more women in engineering, especially civil, than we did before,” she said, “so I see that it’s getting better, but people who aren’t American, who weren’t born here, who are from different ethnicities, I do see that I can help inspire a lot of young women—especially those who aren’t exposed to STEM fields.
“I do hope that I could help other young girls see that it’s an option. I see that as a responsibility, too.”