We sat down with Sophia Rivera to learn how being a Green Building Intern has impacted her personal and professional life. Sophia Sophia participated in the Green Building Internship pilot program during the 2019–2020 school year that has since been refined and scaled into a robust 3-year Building a Green Texas Program funded by a NOAA Environmental Literacy Grant. She was then hired as a Summer Green Building Intern with EcoRise in the Summer of 2020. Experiences from the internships helped Sophia connect to her passions and determine her major, Construction Science and Management, at the University of Texas at San Antonio. 2020–2021 was her freshman year of college, and this Spring, she returned to EcoRise to intern and support the Green Building Academy. She has enlisted in the U.S. Air Force where she will be a structural engineer while she’s in college.

Sophia Rivera

What first captured your interest in green building?

In middle school, I was interested in STEM. I was in the robotics club, figuring problems out, and working with teammates to solve something. During my senior year at Akins High School in Austin ISD, my teacher, Mr. Sayce, offered great courses like rocket design, civil engineering, design, and construction. Akins had a really good STEM program. That set the foundation for what I wanted to do in college.

What was your experience with the School Year Green Building lnternship?

During my senior year, Mr. Sayce was piloting the Green Building Internship with EcoRise, BLGY Architecture, and the University of Texas School of Architecture (UTSOA), and I signed up. I was so excited to go to the construction sites and learn the process of building from the ground up, see how everyone contributes to the project, and learn about incorporating sustainability. It became clear that climate change is a big problem. We can build in a more sustainable way and conserve energy.

During the pilot internship, we rotated working with Gamal Sherif from EcoRise, Miriam Solis from UTSOA, and Sita Lakshminarayan from BLGY Architecture. I saw firsthand what architects do day-to-day. We went to conferences and Lunch-and-Learns. We had to be a sponge and take notes on everything. We looked at blueprints and went to construction sites, where we talked to workers and project managers. Salespeople would come into BLGY and talk to Sita and Benny Hawkins, BLGY’s President, and tell them why BLGY should use their materials in their designs. It was a great experience.

Sophia and her fellow Green Building Interns learning about the construction process from BLGY Architects at Blazier Intermediate School, which was still under construction.

After that, you continued with the Summer Green Building Internship?

Yes, that was after the pilot internship, in the summer of 2020, from June through July. We had students from all over Austin. In this internship, I was able to pursue a passion project. I did a lot of research around gentrification in the east side of Austin. I learned how we can keep building and renovating and still preserve the established communities instead of pushing people out of their homes. We can keep people living in a healthy environment while conserving energy. We presented our projects to green builders, architects, and engineers and we gained experience towards the LEED Green Associate credential.

The 2020 Summer Green Building Interns with guest speaker Kristen Suzda of Re:Vision Architecture who discussed how diverse cultures can influence contemporary building design.

The 2020 Summer Green Building Interns with guest speaker Kristen Suzda of Re:Vision Architecture who discussed how diverse cultures can influence contemporary building design.

How have the EcoRise internships impacted you personally?

It was really fun and enlightening working with EcoRise, and my mentors. I learned a lot and discovered a whole new side of my passion that I had never thought of previously. Before, I was confused about where I was headed personally. With COVID, I feel like everyone in my grade was confused about where our futures were headed. My head was everywhere. During the summer I went through this internship with EcoRise and I loved it. I researched more about the industry and considered if this was what I actually wanted to get into. The more I stuck with EcoRise, the more I knew that my future career would revolve around sustainability. I switched my major from mechanical engineering to construction science and management. I knew I wanted to be ahead of the curve. EcoRise aligned with my values and my passion. Now, I am more set on my goals.

Sophia cutting lumber for a self-designed and built storage unit for her family's garage.

Sophia cutting lumber for a storage unit she designed and built for her family’s garage.

What do you think might have happened if you hadn’t been exposed to these early opportunities?

I don’t think I’d be as happy. I know I would be studying mechanical engineering and I didn’t like it that much. I think sustainability is where it’s at. With EcoRise I was able to explore so many careers—I saw architects, project managers, and Gamal who teaches sustainable energy. I’m grateful to have experienced that and to have expanded my network. I’ve had so many interviews after BLGY and EcoRise. Usually, you don’t get internships until junior or senior year in college, so to say I’m a college freshman and have already had internships opens a lot of doors.

Why should other students consider a green career pathway?

Students should consider a green career because climate change and pollution are big issues. So many careers are going to open up. It’s good to be ahead of the curve, to innovate, and be creative. If you really care about the planet, and I know a lot of people do, then that’s something you should consider.

Also, it’s important to be passionate about your work, because when you are, it’s enjoyable and doesn’t really feel like work. The more you learn, the more your interests change, too. When Gamal first asked us ‘what’s your passion?’ it was so hard to answer because I have so many passions but how do those really relate to what I want to do with my future? EcoRise really helps you connect your passion to your career.

A fellow Summer Intern, David, said ‘my passion is music, but I don’t see how that fits into this career. I mean I know I’m a little bit passionate about sustainability.’ Gamal said, ‘There are engineers and architects who design music studios with attention to acoustics that consider nearby buildings. You could design your own music studios for your school.’ And David said, ‘Wow that is really cool, it would be so nice to design my own studio!’

So any passion you have, there’s always something you can relate it to, and you can always relate that to sustainability. That’s what EcoRise really pushes interns to think more about. What do you want to do with your future? Even if you don’t want to be an engineer, EcoRise will still help you connect with what you want to do. If you can do that before you spend thousands of dollars on a degree, then that’s awesome. You’re set!

6 green building interns sitting in a classroom and laughing together

Through the Green Building Internship Program, EcoRise hopes to help traditionally underrepresented students realize their power and potential to thrive in the green jobs market. The Summer Internship continues to grow and in Summer 2021 reaches 10 schools with 15 students enrolled. EcoRise is seeking teachers who would like to bring these opportunities to their students, and for inspirational green professionals to serve as mentors, guest speakers, and/or volunteers. Click here to learn more and get involved.