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CCEE grads Tana Harris, Zoe Smith make the most of their college experience

Tana Harris, left, Zoe Smith, right

It was a hot summer day in 2019. NC State’s campus was abuzz with campers hoping to catch a glimpse of life as part of the engineering Wolfpack. High schoolers from across the country slept in the dorms, explored labs and classrooms, and participated in activities such as constructing small-scale wooden towers, figuring out how to build a water purifier using basic soil components, and optimizing structures with computer simulations. 

Tana Harris journeyed to campus all the way from Saluda, a small western North Carolina town of about 700. President of her high school’s Future Farmers of America organization, she always had an interest in nature and wanted to see how civil engineering could play a part in preserving the environment. 

Zoe Smith had a shorter drive, hailing just 20 miles south of Raleigh in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. From a young age, she was surrounded by NC State memorabilia and felt destined to one day join the Wolfpack: Her dad, Stacey Smith, is a proud CCEE alum, having earned his BSCE in 1992 and MCE in 2004.

Little did the two high schoolers know that, on that sweltering summer day on campus, their paths would cross, solidifying a lasting friendship. 

At camp, the two ended up in rooms across the hall, and were two of just a few girls in the civil engineering group. As they talked, they found out they had a lot in common. Coincidentally, they also both had parents and brothers that were also civil engineers. 

Camp helped solidify their decision to pursue civil engineering at NC State and to become fast friends.

“One of the first things that convinced me was the great leadership from [CCEE Teaching Professor] Steve Welton [who runs the CCEE portion of the camp],” Harris said. “I really enjoyed having him lead the camp and knowing he would be one of my professors was comforting. Also, it was awesome knowing that [Zoe and I] would have a friendship already in college and someone to go through things together. Knowing that the department offered such a wide breadth of things to study — I liked knowing that I had so many options going into the program and the camp highlighted that.” 

Tana Harris, left and Zoe Smith, right, at NC State’s Engineering Camp in 2019.

After graduating high school in spring of 2020, Harris and Smith reconnected and decided to live together in the dorms for their freshman year. But, with the COVID pandemic came some challenges. 

“Our freshman year was fully masked,” Smith explained. “We had maybe two or three weeks with in-person classes before one of our suitemates got COVID. So we had to quarantine, but then once we came out of quarantine, they ended up sending everyone home, and we had classes online for the rest of the year.” 

Isolation during the pandemic caused a large strain on mental health across the country. But at least the new friends had each other to get through the challenging times, having moved out of their dorm and into an apartment close to campus. 

Tana Harris, left, and Zoe Smith, right, moving into their residence hall

“We had each other for support through classes and other challenges,” Harris said. “A lot of people struggled online because they were completely at home and didn’t have a friend taking the classes with them. But got really lucky that we were in the same apartment taking the same classes.”

Both women laugh remembering a particularly challenging online physics final.  

“There would be five minute breaks between the units [on the final] and so we would run out of our rooms and be like, ‘Oh my god, that was awful!’ Just having that quick connection to commensurate and then go back to our rooms for the next section made things better.” 

Although Harris and Smith bonded over their shared experience of the challenges of online classes and tests during the pandemic restrictions, they were also there to support each other when it came to learning how to come back to campus once restrictions were lifted. But they quickly adjusted to life at NC State — with just a few bus schedule mishaps — and became involved on campus. 

Harris became a team coordinator for NC State’s Sustainability Stewards, co-leading the resource conservation group. She went on to lead a team in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Campus Rainworks Challenge, lead the execution of energy and water competitions in residence halls, and acquired funding for various conservation projects including Campus Green Havens, which added three pollinator gardens with educational components across campus. 

Smith jumped at the chance to get involved in the NC State student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers when the program was being rebuilt after pandemic restrictions. As treasurer, she helped re-establish popular events such as the Student Steel Bridge Competition, employer presentations and attending regional conferences. 

While traveling to one of their first regional conferences, the group ran into a small snafu. A few members had to drop out of attending at the last minute, and there were not enough people to compete in the conference’s challenges. That’s where Harris stepped in. 

“I was like, “if you need someone to go, I’ll go. It sounds like fun!’” Harris said. “There were only around eight people that went to the conference that year. For comparison, this past year, we had about 30. So it was a small group and intimate. We really bonded.” 

That first conference lit a competitive spirit for the team. Harris joined the leadership team and helped plan future conferences as a coordinator. Smith became president of the club during her senior year. During the 2024 regional conference, the NC State team placed in the top three in several competitions including concrete canoe, steel bridge and the sustainable solutions competitions. 

“It’s been fun to be on the leadership team,” Smith said. “It’s really cool to have seen the group grow.” 

When they aren’t participating in campus organizations, completing internships or taking classes, the two women have made countless memories together throughout their college experience. From car rides home from Carowinds amusement park taking turns reading Twilight, to late nights spent studying and making delirious TikToks in the library, to cheering on the Wolfpack from the bleachers, to sleeping in the ASCE “Civil Shack” during NC State’s Shack-A-Thon, to earning NC State traditions medals, they’ve made the last four years ones to remember. 

Zoe Smith, left, and Tana Harris, right, camping out in the Civil Shack during Shack-A-Thon

But they still have a few more memories to make before Harris starts her job at Hazen and Sawyer working in stormwater management and Smith starts work as a staff engineer with Bohler Engineering in land development: After graduation, the two plan to set off on a whirlwind, 15-day adventure in Europe this summer. 

Their advice for incoming freshmen looking to earn a degree from CCEE? Prioritize friendships and reach out when you are in need, make sure you have a strong passion for what you are doing and take time to explore different opportunities and experiences both inside and outside of the department.

“I would not have gotten through this degree if I didn’t have a strong group of friends,” Harris said. “Have friends to do things with and motivate each other. Know that other people can get stressed and overwhelmed and talk them through it.” 

“Just try as many new things as you can,” Smith said. “I worked pretty much every summer at a different internship. I touched so many different areas of civil engineering. Now I feel really confident going into my job. I’ve also gone to so many employer presentations just to hear them out and listen to how many niche areas are out there. It’s neat to know what’s out there.”