Academic Excellence Award

Academic Excellence Winner — Elizabeth Rivas, Mechanical Engineering

Elizabeth Rivas beams as her name is called. As she crosses the stage, set up on the second base line at CHS Field in St. Paul in May, light reflects off the round, silver medallion she wears around her neck. She picks up her diploma cover, then rounds the rest of the bases to home plate. With that final step, she holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a pathway to a bright future. 

Liz Rivas walks across the Commencment stage at CHS Field in May.

The medallion she wears is a tradition and is awarded to one graduating student from each academic department. Nominees are selected by faculty and are recognized for a grade point average of 3.0 or higher, their attendance, work ethic, extra-curricular participation, collegiate camaraderie, pursuit of excellence, and self-awareness. 

Rivas embodies all these qualities.

“Liz has been motivated, conscientious, and dedicated since day one,” Jonathan Aurand, Associate Professor of Engineering in the School of Engineering, said. “Her commitment to her studies and her classmates has been top-notch.  Her attendance and academic performance are stellar, and she is greatly deserving of this recognition.”

In a way, Rivas has a deer and her stepdad to thank for pushing her towards her future career.  She crashed into the deer while driving her first car, a 2008 Ford Taurus. 

“We didn’t have the money to take it to a mechanic and get it fixed, so we got the parts very cheap,” she said.  “And my step-dad, at the time, showed me how we were going to take it apart and do it all here with whatever we’ve got.”

He encouraged her to take photos of the parts, her work, and to remember as much about them as possible to put them back together, because he was not going to be able to dedicate a lot of time to helping her.  At first, she wasn’t sure she could do it. 

“I remember worrying as I looked at the whole project, ‘Will I remember this? How does this fit in here?’” Rivas said. “But once you look at the individual pieces, it seemed pretty simple.

I was able to get it up and running.”  

Rivas continued to help her stepdad with little projects at home and took a couple of small engine classes in high school, where she worked with lawn mowers– “the bigger ones you ride on,” she said. 

She liked the hands-on aspect to the class. 

Hands-on learning appealed to Liz Rivas.
Hands-on learning appealed to Elizabeth Rivas.

“Sometimes I would think to myself, ‘How would I fix this?” she said. “How would I improve this if I were designing it?”  

Born in Los Angeles, Rivas moved with her family to Willmar in 2010, and graduated from Willmar Senior High School. While there, she took advantage of Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) and earned enough credits for an associate degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Rivas says she recognized that she was a visual learner while in high school, and she began to look for the college environment that was tailored for her. A mentor from First Robotics recommended Dunwoody. She decided to come for a tour. 

“I saw there was something different at Dunwoody,” she said. “Other colleges that I looked at didn’t put much emphasis on their technical courses—mechanical engineering especially.”

“I got a personal tour from Peggy Quam, [Assistant Director of Special Initiatives]” Rivas said. “And she made sure that I had all of my questions answered.”

The summer before starting her first class at Dunwoody, Rivas participated in the Youth Career Awareness Program (YCAP), a program designed for under-represented students who are interested in a technical career. It offers students a chance to explore career opportunities in the fields of study that are offered at Dunwoody and awards financial help for those who decide to enroll.

They toured CNC Metalcraft, a premier metal fabricator. “I really liked the technology they were using to make their parts,” Rivas said. “I just thought it was really cool how they could go from fine powder to a full tool, and they use their own equipment.”

As her coursework continued, she became more interested in manufacturing. “I really enjoyed designing and trying to improve the part, but also seeing how it could be made the cheapest and quickest way,” she said. 

Rivas is part of the second class of Mechanical Engineering graduates from the School of Engineering and is the only female in the cohort of four. 

She says the culture at Dunwoody quickly quieted the voice in her head that was telling her she didn’t belong, and that she no longer thinks about being the only female. 

“I saw how each of the members of my cohort was having the same struggles as I was,” Rivas said. “I realized we are all here to learn, and this is a new field for all of us. We are all learning and supporting each other.” 

It was that moment, along with her instructors open door policy that reaffirmed her decision to come to Dunwoody.

Early on in her studies, she struggled to understand some of the material. She found the courage to seek help from Aurand, her professor. She entered his office, and he immediately pushed aside his work and sat down with her for two hours until she had a firm understanding of the material. 

“I wouldn’t trade this experience,” Rivas said. She joined clubs and took a job working in the Financial Aid office and became a student ambassador. 

She hopes to inspire other women to join the program and become mechanical engineers. 

“I would say Dunwoody is the epitome of the saying ‘Where there is a will there is a way’,” Rivas said. “If you are willing to stay here and graduate, there will always be people to help you and push you forward.”

Months before graduation, Rivas accepted a position as a Digital Manufacturing Designer at ProtoLabs where she will work in injection molding and is looking forward to the challenge and plans to take lessons learned with her.  

Rivas remembers speakers who came to class talking about their journey. “What always gets me is their story of how they got there and when they say, ‘I love what I do.’ That is something that I am excited to say one day.”

 “When I started at Dunwoody, I was kind of quiet and people helped me to learn to speak up,” Rivas said. “I want to be that person for others, whether it is a customer trying to get their product, or a design team trying to get everyone’s voices heard.”