In our Alumni Spotlight series, we ask alumni to tell us about their careers and how their UVA experiences prepared them for life after the Lawn. This month, let's meet Chloe Rento, a 2017 graduate with a major in Chemical Engineering and minor in Civil and Environmental Engineering. NOTE: This interview was conducted pre-COVID.

UVA alumna Chloe Rento in Chad with a traditional dance group at a festival

I came in to the E-School right from the beginning with a strong interest in working in international settings, and did my best to explore that field even while still working towards my engineering degree - I studied French, took an independent study in Global Development Studies, and even managed to study abroad for a semester in Italy. On another note, I both refereed and played in intramural sports, and am still a HUGE Hoos basketball fan - never missed a home game, and not ashamed to admit I cried when they won the championship last year.

Tell me about your career and your current job.

I am a US Government contractor working on counter-violent extremism (CVE) programs financed by USAID. I manage and implement small-grants programs in regions affected by terrorist organizations, in an effort to help communities recover, stabilize, and become more resilient against the influence of violent extremist groups. After graduating from UVA, I worked briefly in DC before moving to a project in Chad, then to Palestine. Now I am working in the north of Cameroon, managing a $10 million grants portfolio. 

What does a "day in the life of you" look like?  

Day-to-day, I run a team that manages all stages of our grants in the Far North of Cameroon, from development through implementation to closeout. Because our mandate is so broad - essentially "help vulnerable communities in whatever ways they need" - our grants cover a really wide range of activities. We could do a small construction or rehabilitation project to build a school, or provide vocational training to youth to give them marketable skills in the job market, or install solar light posts so that businesses and social activities don't have to stop at sundown for communities that don't have electricity, or a whole host of other activities. At any given time, my team is tracking 20 to 25 of these activities simultaneously, dealing with constantly changing security conditions and a severe lack of available resources. To be honest, there is a lot of paperwork involved; every penny of USG funding has to be accounted for and documented. I provide verbal and written reporting and analysis to USAID on conditions in the Far North of Cameroon and the status of all of our grants. The work is fast-paced and requires long hours, but it can be really rewarding to see the impacts of your work on communities that are really struggling. 

How have your experiences and education at UVA shaped your life after college and your career path thus far?

My experience at UVA helped me figure out what I wanted to do with my career and life in general. I had the chance to travel and live abroad, which was how I discovered that I really wanted to do that. I saw plenty of examples of other students or alumni who were carving their own path, which was really encouraging to someone like me who didn't feel like I completely fit in any of the traditional engineering careers. By being exposed to a wide range of people and experiences, I was able to better pin down what I did - and did not - want to be doing in life after college.

How has UVA Engineering helped you innovate and lead in your current role/your path thus far/Life after the Lawn?

The one question I am constantly asked is "how did a chemical engineer end up working in CVE in northern Cameroon?" One of my favorite parts about my UVA engineering education was that everything I learned was always connected to how to apply it in the real world. There are so many skills that engineers learn that are not just invaluable in other career fields, but are even rare to find. Taking an engineer's approach to problem solving - identify your variables, define how they are related to each other, determine if you need more information or if you can ignore certain data points - is how I am able to keep my team operating in an environment as volatile and challenging as a conflict or post-conflict zone. Because I learned how to take a systems and holistic approach when analyzing a problem, I can design and implement projects that build upon each other to help improve communities, rather than only addressing a fraction of the problem. So while I am not using Matlab to design a distillation column, I am still regularly applying the principles I learned during my time at UVA. 

Tell us about an event, class, advisor, professor, or mentor that really impacted your career path/choices.

My first year, I stopped by Professor Jim Smith's office in Civil Engineering, to ask him a few questions about his research. One thing led to another, and I ended up being able to travel to South Africa over two summers with his team to conduct field studies on a new water purification technology. Those months in South Africa were pivotal in my choices on where I wanted to work and what I wanted to be doing. Professor Smith always had doors open, whether it be to work in his lab or get involved in his nonprofit work or just to stop by his office and ask questions on his previous day's lecture. It certainly changed my entire experience at UVA, and has stuck with me since graduating.

How did engaging with the Center for Engineering Career Development support your goals and vision for the future?

I lost count of the number of times I sent my resume to the career center for tweaking (sorry Heather!), and they helped walk me through setting up my LinkedIn profile to start connecting with people and practice with mock interviews. The center also showed me how to tap into the alumni network, where I was able to talk with multiple other engineering alums (several of whom I am still in touch with today) who were doing similar work to what I was interested in. Those conversations were the basis of my understanding of the international development field, and shaped my thoughts on what I thought I might want to do and what opportunities I should be looking for. When I finally get around to starting to put together applications for graduate school, I will definitely be going back to the career center for support.

With your professional perspective, what skills do you think are vital for current UVA Engineering students to learn?

I have found that it is really important to learn how to present or report your work to a non-technical audience, or one that is not as familiar with the context and background of your work as you are. We sometimes forget this in school, as we are always presenting to professors or classmates, who have a better or at least similar baseline understanding of what you are discussing. In the professional world, more often than not, you have to give presentations or write reports for people that don't know much about what you are talking about - that is the whole reason why they are asking you to present on it. 

For current students hoping to go into your field, what are some of the most effective things they can do right now to prepare themselves for future success?

Learn a second language. This has really opened doors for me; even though I wasn't (and am still not) fluent, being able to work in French has led to opportunities that I would have otherwise been less competitive to get. Also, begin networking as soon as possible. Knocking on doors and emailing or reaching out on LinkedIn with as many people as you can, even those you have no other connection with, will not only help you get a better sense of what you want to do, but could end up being the one small factor that gets your resume in a recruiter's hands over someone else's. Feel free to start with me!