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How to make the most of your undergraduate education and the rest of your life: ICC Chairman Carrie Zalewski (BSGE 2001)

11/29/2020

William Gillespie

"Scientists investigate that which already is; Engineers create that which has never been.'' ~Albert Einstein.

 

Carrie and James Solberg, as future engineers.
Carrie and James Solberg, as future engineers.

Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) Chairman Carrie Zalewski (BSGE 2001) attributes the dawning of her interest in STEM, as a young person, to inspirations provided by two men: Her brother James Solberg, and Albert Einstein. Although Albert Einstein is the more famous, it was ultimately her brother James who kindled her interest in engineering and preceded her to the University of Illinois' College of Engineering. Four years older than her, he went to the U of I to be a Mechanical Engineering major. But it was ISE Professor and Associate Head of Undergraduate Programs Michael H. Pleck who mentored her as an undergraduate, assuring her that, as a pre-law student with a passion for environmental issues, General Engineering (now Systems Engineering and Design) was the perfect major for her.

She says she loved her engineering education for two reasons. First, the "holistic approach" of systems engineering "focused on problem solving, in a very creative and innovative way, thinking through various ways to get to a solution." Second, she enjoyed the collaboration in the college of engineering.

And, citing "grit," she persevered through not only the difficult engineering major but a secondary field option in African Studies, which saw her spending six months abroad in South Africa.  "Another amazing thing about U of I," she notes, is that she was able to take a class in the Zulu language, spoken only in southern Africa. She was also a member of a women's engineering sorority, Alpha Omega Epsilon. She managed to squeeze in an internship with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), where she would later find one of her first jobs in the legal profession.

From the U of I she went on to demonstrate the grit necessary to finish her degree at Chicago Kent - College of Law. From law school she went on to serve the state at the Illinois Department of Transportation working on environmental compliance issues. She recommends government work for young attorneys because, among other reasons, "young lawyers working at the government get to do good work, making an impact, solve important, challenging problems, all while being afforded more autonomy representing the State than often afforded to new attorneys in private practice.”

From IDOT she was appointed to the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) where she was a board member for nine years working on environmental regulation. One of the highlights of her work at the Board was setting water quality standards for the Chicago area water system, which ensured better water quality and greater use of the river that runs through downtown Chicago and the recently redeveloped River Walk.

Excited by Governor Pritzker's call to decarbonize Illinois, she applied to and was appointed to the ICC. The Illinois Commerce Commission has about 200 employees, and, among its many activities, is tasked balancing the interests of consumers and utilities to ensure adequate, efficient, reliable, safe and least-cost public utility services.  Comparing her time at ICC to her time with the IPCB, she advises young people interested in sustainability and decarbonization to consider working in energy.

"If you want to work in the sustainability field and are passionate about solving climate change, the ICC is a great place to understand the inner workings of energy markets and the Illinois law incentivizing renewable energy coming online."

When asked how her engineering training in complex systems helps her work at the ICC, she says her engineering degree gave her “the confidence and the ability to learn, understand and synthesize challenging topics, in order to work towards a well thought-out solution”, noting “problem solving is perhaps the most useful thing you could learn from any institution."

The challenge-hungry Chairman Zalewski also volunteers on  the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Advisory Board, which is part of UIUC's Prairie Research Institute.

She is cognizant that women are still under-represented in the engineering field, something that was prevalent when she was a student. She recalls an electrical engineering class in which she was one of two females out of 90 students. A secondary passion is trying to solve this problem. While in Law School, she volunteered as a tutor for students from underserved communities through the Tutoring Chicago Program (previously the Cabrini Green Tutoring Program) and after Law School served on the Chicago Youth Centers Auxiliary Board, which raised funds for after-school support and resources for underserved communities such as STEM opportunities.  She is dedicated to providing young women and other underrepresented students the same spark provided by her brother and Einstein.