Becoming a professional engineer is a difficult task at any point in time, regardless of where we were born or live. However, challenges become even greater when we choose to pursue a career in a different country. Not only are the language and culture adoption barriers to overcome, but the way things work out in the new place can also be intimidating. Today, our guest explains how she managed to overcome all of these.
Daughter of two engineers and sister of talented siblings ranging from engineers and doctors, Martha Castellon was born and raised in Honduras. Needless to say, she grew up surrounded by engineering conversations and soon realized she was good at math and physics. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in Honduras, she could not find a job there and, following her parents’ advice, she decided to learn English and come to the US to get a master’s degree. Being an international student, however, required her to find a job within three months upon completing her graduate studies. Otherwise, she would have to leave.
Today, Martha shares the troubles she’s been through while on the job hunt in the US, how volunteering (you read it right!) helped her land a position as a road design engineer, how the language barriers caused her to take the FE more than once, and how the Ultimate Civil FE Review Course helped her in her goal of passing this exam. She also shares some tips for those preparing to take the test, how planning ahead can greatly improve your odds, as well as how the CEA community and team members along with tons of practice problems helped her prepare, take, and pass her FE exam.
Some links below are affiliate links, which means at no cost to you I make a small commission for referring products and resources.
Martha Castellon – [email protected]
Getting from College to Career, by Lindsey Pollak – https://amzn.to/2Zgf9Cy
CEA Episode 49 (International Professional Engineers Noah and Mostafa) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhSPXSU5t9M
Oklahoma State University – https://go.okstate.edu
The Ultimate Civil FE Review Course – https://civilfereviewcourse.com
If you’re a civil engineer, Autodesk offers a suite of software that you’ll definitely use – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/autodesk
If you need exams, solved problems, or courses, make sure to check out our home base – https://civilengineeringacademy.com
Haven’t joined up in our free community? What’s wrong with you? J/K. Ok, just go there and join a group of like-minded civil engineers! – https://ceacommunity.com
Join over 4000 engineers like you and learn the tips and tricks to passing the FE and PE. We even have a free resource for you! – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/join-our-newsletter
Reach out to Isaac – [email protected]
Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right! Welcome, everybody! Welcome, Martha. How's it going?
Martha Castellon: Good. How are you?
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, I'm doing pretty well. I've heard it's freezing. You're in Oklahoma.
Martha Castellon: Yes. I have my space heater right now.
Isaac Oakeson: It's freezing in Oklahoma. And I'm in Utah and we haven't had snow like all winter. So, I don't know what's up with that, but, you know, stuff happens. Anyway, welcome to the Civil Engineering Academy podcast.
Martha Castellon: Thank you.
Isaac Oakeson: I would love to know a little bit more about your background from you. You know, how did you get into engineering? What's your background? How did you end up in the United States? Give us some details.
Martha Castellon: Okay. Well, I'm from Honduras and both my parents are civil engineers. My dad worked and has been working all his life in civil engineering. He's a contractor.
Isaac Oakeson: In Honduras?
Martha Castellon: In Honduras. Yes. So, I grew up around civil engineer conversations. And once I was in high school, I was very good at math and physics. I like solving problems. So, I thought that's what I wanted to be. But then I also like biology, chemistry. "Well, maybe I can be a doctor too". So, I graduated high school thinking I was going to become a doctor, but then my parents started working my brain and "You know, I think you'll do better doing civil engineering. It's a shorter career". And so they convinced me, and I'm glad they did. I'm glad they did because I'm not good with theory. So I remember watching my older brother just studying and that "I won't be able to do that. I'm better at solving problems". That's what I like to do. So I started engineering and I graduated back home in 2009.
Martha Castellon: After that I couldn't find a job. And, my parents, they always told us to "just continue your education". So, "Well, I guess I'll start learning English and see if I can go overseas and get a master's degree". So that's what I did. And in 2011, I came here to the US, to Oklahoma, and I received my master's degree in 2013. And, after that, well, being an international student, we're allowed to work here for a year. So I started applying to jobs. It wasn't easy. I didn't have the connections, I didn't do an internship. So I think that's hurt me. So, I spent a couple months not finding a job and we're allowed only to find a job for three months. If not, we have to go back home.
Martha Castellon: So I started volunteering. I remember I read a book going from college to career. So I started doing every single thing that the book was saying. And one of the thing is "You cannot stay home". You just need to move. You just need to go meet people. If you meet somebody at the supermarket, just let them know what you do, what you are, what you're looking for, and you'll find something. So that's what I did. I started volunteering. I volunteered in a retirement community and I met people. Some way I've found an engineer that found me this job.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow! That's amazing.
Martha Castellon: I'm just amazed how everything worked out and I feel so blessed.
Isaac Oakeson: How long have you been working now in this? You're in transportation. And how long have you been working there?
Martha Castellon: I've been working there for eight years.
Isaac Oakeson: Awesome! Wow. That's really fascinating. So I just want to back up a little bit. So, you're going from Honduras. How did you choose the school you were going to?
Martha Castellon: That was easy. My brother was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So was like, "Well, my brother is a doctor". I was very young. I was 21. So I was like, "Well, I think I better go and be close to him just to be safe". And to be close to family too. I miss my brother.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, it sounds like you got a genius family. You had doctors, you get engineers and your parents are engineers. Like, "Man!". Do you have any other siblings?
Martha Castellon: Yes, I have two more. There's another engineer. And the other one is a drafter.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow!. You know, you guys need to get together and start your own company.
Martha Castellon: Yes. We just need the money.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Wow. So, you've overcome so many challenges in coming here, and I know one of the challenges as you were going through school, and now that you're looking forward to becoming a professional engineer, is that you had to go through the gate of the FE exam and you had to pass that.
Martha Castellon: Yes.
Isaac Oakeson: So what was your experience like taking that? Were you in school, Were you out of school? You know, what was your mindset around that?
Martha Castellon: Well, I took it while I was at OSU. But I did not study. I just took it and it was terrible. I remember --
Isaac Oakeson: It sounds like my first time.
Martha Castellon: Yes. I did not take it seriously. And honestly, I had no idea -- When I came here, I had no idea everything that I had to do in order to become a professional engineer. So, this was news to me. So, "Well, I better take it". But I never thought it was going to be that hard. And the other issue is my language. At that time, I was not very good.
Isaac Oakeson: Proficient in English.
Martha Castellon: Yes, yes. And especially on those areas that I was not taking any classes in, like environmental. So I went there and I barely understood most of the questions.
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. So how did you overcome that?
Martha Castellon: Well --
Isaac Oakeson: I guess, what advice would you have for someone that's going through the same thing?
Martha Castellon: Well, you need to prepare, you need to solve problems. That's what you need to do. But I think it helped me just getting those extra years of just working in this area and improving my English.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. Well, it's one thing to learn English, but then you're going to a technical field and that kind of has its own little language too. So I can imagine that it was a real struggle to try to not only learn the language, but then also learn the engineering and the technical grammar.
Martha Castellon: Everything I knew it was in Spanish. So it was hard.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, man. So you had really, like, double duty. Not only were you studying for engineering, you were trying to learn this language as well. So, I imagine with that, it probably took a few times to really get used to how they're testing, and the questions, and practicing. I imagine you took it a few times as well. So you know, you kind of have to do to get used to it.
Martha Castellon: Exactly. Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow. That's awesome. So, along those lines, you ended up discovering Civil Engineering Academy. And this is how we connected because you're a member of Civil Engineering Academy's course. How did you discover us? How did that help? What did it do to help you in any way?
Martha Castellon: Well, after I took it the first time, several times I tried to take it again and I just -- I bought a book. I started studying. But then along the way, it's just, "I don't want to do this". So this time I decided, "Well, the way I study the best is with people. I need a group". That's how I was through college. So, I said "Well, I need to do something else. Just studying by myself with the book is not going to help". So I Google FE Review Course. And I remember reading a few articles and you were on the top three. And so I just decided to go with yours. It seemed like the better fit for my case. Even though I read somewhere that probably if you're many years out of school, you probably need something more in depth. But it wasn't the case.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, that's great. So, I'm happy you found us. That's awesome.
Martha Castellon: I'm happy for it too.
Isaac Oakeson: I just wanted to detail your journey, cause it sounds like it's really amazing. All the struggles that you've come through and overcome to able to get your FE. Do you feel like you were supported in the course? I think when people are in the same boat, it does make things definitely easier when you're with other people in the same mindset and going through the same struggles. Do you feel like you got supported?
Martha Castellon: Yes. I did not ask that many questions through the Facebook group. I'm very impatient. So, once I couldn't do anything, I just call my dad or call my brother, or call my friends. I just had to know. So, I didn't have the need, but I've seen that so many of the other students, they get their response. And I try to help too, if I can.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. So, part of the course is that we give people private access to a community on Facebook. And as part of that, people jump in, ask questions. We have members of our team, Civil Engineering Academy, but also the community itself jumps in and they all kind of help each other. And that's always fun to watch. And I really, really like that. We tryto get in there too, definitely, when we can for sure. And we call the course, the Ultimate Civil FE Review Course. And it's taught by my brother Mark and myself. We jump in there and do this. And what's fun for us is that we feel like we're just kind of two guys in the trenches that have been here before. And we're just trying to share that experience with other people. And so I'm glad you're able to do that. I guess, what are some recommendations or thoughts on how to help others, now that you've gone through this whole experience? You know, that includes maybe how to prepare for this. How did you tackle time management? That's usually a big deal for people. What was that like for you as well?
Martha Castellon: I'm not very good at time management. If I find a problem and I'm struggling with it, I just need to find the answer no matter how long it takes me. So, that was my biggest concern. And I think it hurt me a little bit while I took the exam, because the very first half, it took me like three hours. And when I finished that, I was like, "Oh man, I barely have enough time for the rest of the test". But I just -- I guess I did enough.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. So, did you take your time on the problems? Was there problems that you skipped? Was there any strategy that you had, or did you just plow through it?
Martha Castellon: Well, I think what hurt me the most is, I knew I was good at geo-tech and transportation. So if I had a problem on those topics that it took me more time, I needed to keep doing it because I knew I can get it right. And I think I shouldn't have done that because ---
Isaac Oakeson: Well, you passed.
Martha Castellon: Yeah, I passed. But I don't think that's something you need to be doing. You need to stick to two to three minutes per question. And I just had trouble going back to that.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Thatt makes sense. Well, we always kind of teach a strategy when you're going through that exam that if you're, you know, you experienced a problem you just aren't going to get, or you're not familiar with, I'd flag it and move on.
Martha Castellon: And that's what I did on environmental. Things that I knew, "No, this is goign to take me so much time and I'm not very good at it", just flag it and then come back to it.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. Well, um, the NCEES organization likes to mix things up and they have, you know, I would say recently, not so recently but kind of recently, they started throwing in alternative-type questions. How did you find those? Were they tricky at all for you? Was there very many for that?
Martha Castellon: There wasn't many.
Isaac Oakeson: There wasn't many.
Martha Castellon: No. Nothing to be worried about. And I did not know that until like a few days before the test and I was freaking out. I was like, "This is so bad. I cannot make an educated guess if I don't know these topics".
Isaac Oakeson: What's funny to me is that, you know, the test has always been multiple choice forever. And then when it went computer-based, then they introduced these alternative-type questions because it is on a computer and you can do point and click, and drag and drop, and fill in the blank and all this stuff. But I always felt like at the end of the day, it's very similar to a multiple choice anyway. Like, you have to know. You have to know it, you know? You have to know where to click. And that would be the same as if it was a multiple choice problem. Anyway, I guess the only downside is, with multiple choice, one of those four answers is right in front of you and those aren't there anymore. So that could get you. Maybe that's the point to that.
Martha Castellon: Yeah. But there wasn't many. So, I don't think it's something to worry about.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay, good. What's your thoughts on the theory problems? You've got conceptual problems where you got to solve them, and there's, I've heard, an uptick on the theory type of problems where you just have to know a theory pretty well, using your engineering judgment. Was that tricky at all?
Martha Castellon: A little bit. I was surprised that there was -- I was not expecting that there were going to be that many questions about theory, but it was. But you can find most of the answers in the manual. So, it wasn't a big deal.
Isaac Oakeson: That's good to know.
Martha Castellon: Yeah. I remember taking practice tests that they had theory questions and "Well, I'll just Google keywords". Not Google, but search on the manual and found the answer. So, you just have to think a little bit.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. That's a good tip. So, if you've got the FE Handbook and there's theory questions, plug in those keywords and see what you can find. Good advice. Is there something you wish you would've known when you started this journey preparing for this exam that you would share with others?
Martha Castellon: Well, right now, during the pandemic, I wish I would've known that I had to practice with a mask on. I'm not used to using a mask. And that was challenging.
Isaac Oakeson: I've heard that it's the same at the PE as well. If you're going to take those exams, you know, they're going to require a mask. So if you're going to take practice exams at home, is probably a very good idea to create a study environment that's similar to the test and wear a mask. You know, even if you only go through half an exam, try to treat it like the real exam.
Martha Castellon: Yes. Yeah. The back of my ears were killing me.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, doesn't your doctor rather have some pretty sweet mask that he could give you?
Martha Castellon: They're all the same.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, okay. Well maybe we could invent some new mask with some padding back there because nobody wants to wear a mask for six hours, eight hours.
Martha Castellon: Yeah. So, nothing else really? On my whole journey, I would have liked to know the steps to become a civil engineer. I had no idea. I had no idea because that's not the way it is back home. You just graduate and you start working and that's it.
Isaac Oakeson: That's a good idea. Maybe, you know, I'm taking a note to myself here, but maybe there's something or a video that I could make in the future that would help someone like you in your shoes coming to the US to become an engineer. What are the steps?
Martha Castellon: Yeah. That'll be really helpful. I saw your podcast with civil engineers in Canada. So, that was pretty interesting.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. So, occasionally, I like to pull in people from other countries and see what engineering is like over there. You know, how did you become a professional engineer and what do you have to do over there? You know, if someone wanted to go to Canada to become a professional engineer, you might be interested to learn about it.
Martha Castellon: I have several friends that they're wanting to move to Canada.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Or, the other one that was on there was from Egypt.
Martha Castellon: Yes. Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, this has been fun. I guess just a few more questions before we kind of wrap this up, but what are some personal habits that contributed to your success as an engineer? What do you think are some personal habits that you had to develop or that maybe you have just naturally?
Martha Castellon: I like to plan and make lists. I think that that really helps me. And it helped me with the FE. Once I signed up for the course, I [inaudible] schedule and I had it programmed for a week, and what I was going to study. So just plan ahead.
Isaac Oakeson: Good. So, it sounds like plan ahead. You know, find out the details beforehand of what you need to do, whether that's going to take the FE or whether you're starting school, a graduate program or whatever you're getting into.
Martha Castellon: Yes. I've always been focused on "Well, I need to get this done by this time". I didn't do it with FE but I did it with everything in my career.
Isaac Oakeson: You just knew the FE was coming. I'm going to get that done.
Martha Castellon: Yes.
Isaac Oakeson: So, that's great. And it sounds like you really looked up to your family, which is awesome. That's awesome that your both parents are civil engineers. That's, I think, a pretty rare combination.
Martha Castellon: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Are they going to come to the US as well sometime?
Martha Castellon: We don't know. My dad still works and he's so passionate about what he does. I think I've never met anybody so passionate about asphalt.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. He's loves building those roads.
Martha Castellon: Yeah, he does.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, I'm sure -- I mean, having someone in your home like that can really help you with, I think, all of your study. So that really, I feel like has been a blessing for you in giving you a leg up in the civil engineering world. So that's fantastic. Oh, man. That's awesome. You know, most people struggle through their classwork and things like that. And you probably had someone to lean back on.
Martha Castellon: Oh yeah. I remember while I was in school and high school and I just had questions. And even if they were not familiar with it, they would just take their time and try to solve it and then explain it to me. So, yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. Well, I guess to wrap it up, I guess the course helped you, which is nice to hear. Why would you recommend someone to the Ultimate Civil FE Review Course?
Martha Castellon: Well, to me it had the structure that I needed to go with it. To just push through the studying. I liked the fact that you had so many problems because I have several books here, but they just have a couple of problems on each topic. For me, that wasn't enough.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Well, that's fantastic. Yes. Tons of practice problems. So, our course will come with lecture modules, practice problems. We give out exams as part of it as well. We're actually in the works of making a computer-based exam as well. So, we're trying to set that up as like a real testing environment. Maybe I could use your help for that.
Martha Castellon: I'm always happy to help.
Isaac Oakeson: But, you know, those are the things that comes with support as well. And we're happy when people see results and you were able to get those. And so, with your background and story, I think everybody will feel inspired to try to do better and try to get this done within their life as well. So, what are the next steps for you?
Martha Castellon: Well, I'm planning on taking the PE next October. I'm going to start studying this summer.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Well, I'm sure you'll do well. You're already in a good study habit and you'll just continue that moving forward. I have a fun question for you. It sounds like you already recommended a book. What was that book again, that you recommended?
Martha Castellon: It was Getting from College to Career, by Lindsey Pollak.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. So we'll put that in the show notes for others that want to research that. It sounds like it helped you.
Martha Castellon: It helped me. Yes. Everything I have is because I read that book.
Isaac Oakeson: That's amazing. Okay. We'll link to that in case somebody is in the same boat. If you had, I guess, as a civil engineer, if you had -- This is just a fun question, but if you had all the resources in the world, what's something that you would like to be a part of?
Martha Castellon: I would like to help my country. Just improve their roads, their infrastructure. I remember when I was a kid, going from one major city to the other one, I was just thinking "I'm going to die today". Because they were terrible. It was a heavy-traffic road and it was just a two lane, on the mountain.
Isaac Oakeson: yeah. I would feel that way too.
Martha Castellon: Yes. And it has improved since I left, but it just needs so much work.
Isaac Oakeson: You know, I actually took a trip for work to India and I felt like I was going to die too. But what I realized by the end of the trip is that it's kind of, like, organized chaos. Like, everybody's just doing their thing and traffic's kind of going everywhere and stuff is in the road.
Martha Castellon: Yeah. If you learn how to drive in those places, you're not going to have any troubles here.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. There you go. Well, I think that's great. Transportation's a big thing. It's always evolving. It seems like the future of transportation is just awesome. And, you know, you're in it. So that's exciting to be a part of.
Martha Castellon: Yes.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, thank you for joining me. Is there any last piece of guidance you'd like to share, and also what's the best way for our audience to get ahold of you if they had questions or wanted to bug you about stuff about anything?
Martha Castellon: Well, I'll start with the easy one. They can contact me at my personal email address: [email protected] And then the piece of guidance is just, you just need to try. You need to keep going and never forget your goal.
Isaac Oakeson: Great. Never forget it. It's a big deal.
Martha Castellon: Yes. And I did forget it along the way. I was just making excuses, and I was wanting to get my immigration status worked out first. Then "I should've just done it after I failed the first time".
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. You got a lot of stuff that you're probably balancing and worrying about, and hopefully things are settling down a little bit for you. You've got your degree, you've got your FE. You can work on your PE. You've got, you know, basically a newborn kind of. You're taking care of a baby. So that's exciting. I'm just excited for your future. I think you've got a really bright future ahead of you and I'm just excited for you. So thanks for sharing your wisdom and the background that you shared. I think a lot of people are going to love this. Again Martha, your email again was [email protected] I think you're on LinkedIn too, right? Oh, at Hotmail?
Martha Castellon: Yes. Hotmail.
Isaac Oakeson: At Hotmail. Okay, I'll make sure I get that right. Can people look you up on LinkedIn? Are you on there? Do you ever look at it?
Martha Castellon: I am, but I'm --
Isaac Oakeson: Not too active there.
Martha Castellon: Yes. I'm not to active.
Isaac Oakeson: okay. We'll hit you up on the email. Appreciate you jumping on the show. This has been really fun for me and we'll see you next time.
Martha Castellon: Perfect. Thank you for having me.
Isaac Oakeson: All right, bye.
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