GCA communications intern, Haley Sandell (H) recently interviewed Sara Overturff (S). After working for JP Morgan Chase, one of the largest banks in the world, Sara began looking for new ways to apply her love of project management. She found OU’s Construction Management master’s program and hasn’t looked back. In this interview, Sara shares her experiences in and perspectives of the program with us!

H: Hey, Sara! 

S: Hey, Haley, how are you? 

H: Not too bad, how’s it going? 

S: Not too bad, just trying to stay cool in this Oklahoma summer heat that’s hit us. 

H: I guess it’s June now! 

S: It doesn’t seem like it, but somehow, it is now June 1st. After what was maybe the longest May and April in history. 

H: Yeah, it’s crazy. How have you been dealing with the quarantine? 

S: Not too bad. I think for all of us in construction, it felt like nothing had changed because we had to keep going and figure it out. But I’m not going to lie, going to online school was not easy. I’m so glad to be done with this semester, and I’m looking forward to hopefully being back in the classroom in August. 

H: Definitely, adapting has been the name of the game recently. 

S: Absolutely, zoom has got to be on fire right now! 

H: Definitely! Can you tell us a little bit about your life and your journey leading up to Gibbs? 

S: Absolutely. I was an undergraduate student at OU, and I was in the College of Business. I majored in Finance and Economics. I was the typical college student who had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I graduated and ended up working for JP Morgan Chase, which is one of the largest banks in the world. I spent three years there working in this weird project management-type finance role, and I loved it, but I was coming to the end of those three years and thought, what am I going to do now? So, I was looking around, and I really liked the project management so I figured I would take a huge leap of faith and switch industries completely. I talked to some people, got their thoughts on construction and healthcare, and I landed in construction. I wanted to grow my knowledge, so I decided to go back to school and go back to where it all started. Boomer Sooner! I ended up in the master’s program at the College of Architecture, and I just wrapped up my first year. 

H: What a rollercoaster! 

S: I know, I know! For anyone who doesn’t know what they want to do with their life, it is okay! I’ve been there, I survived it, I’m still surviving it. You will get through it! 

H: And look at you now, getting your master’s! 

S: I know! And I’m telling people about it on a podcast! 

H: So, what current projects are you working on, or have you recently worked on? 

S: I’ve been really fortunate in my first year as a master’s student to get to work on projects both in school and I work for a small general contractor (small GC) in Oklahoma City (OKC), and it has been such a great experience to get to work on some very different projects. In school, we got to work on a project called Bradford House, which is actually over on 39th and Classen, and it is a historical renovation that they are doing on an old house and they’re turning it into a boutique hotel. It’s so cool, and the vibe of it is really interesting! We were fortunate enough to get to work on the estimating and scheduling for that in Professor Bloom’s class, and I am really interested in historic renovation—I think it’s so vital for OKC. It was such a great opportunity because going in, getting a building, and completely re-building it is very different from starting at the ground and working your way up. So, I got to do that in school, we got to go tour the building, and I live pretty close by, so I’ve gotten to see it through the different stages. It has just been super interesting to get to take part in. On the other side, working for a small GC, I’ve gotten to see some really cool ground-ups. I worked on an office remodel for an architect—which was a little nerve-racking because they’re architects and they know what to look for. I’ve also gotten to do some remodels on some restaurants, right now I’m wrapping up an office building for a trucking company, so I’ve gotten some very broad experience in the last year and it’s been super interesting to see the different challenges and opportunities that come in all different types of construction. 

H: Yeah, definitely! You’ve been doing a little bit of everything! 

S: It feels that way, but whenever you’re coming into something with no experience, it’s also good to get thrown in the deep end and see what’s next. It has been a really good time, and like I said, getting to work on real-world projects in the College of Architecture has been such a great experience. 

H: It gives you that exposure to what you’re going to do the rest of your life! So, what is a project you’re working on or have worked on at GCA that you are most proud of? 

S: It wasn’t for a class, specifically, but in January, I was asked to participate in a student competition for the Urban Land Institute (ULI). Every year they host competitions for graduate students; I think you can do it if you’re a fifth-year architecture student as well, but they kind of restrict it to graduate students. Essentially what they do is they give you a plot of land in a city, and you don’t find out what city it is until the day the competition starts. It’s a group of 5-6 individuals and you spent 2 weeks, all day every day, researching the city, creating a development for this plot of land, putting together rendering, building out a proforma financial statement, figuring out if you can actually construct on it, and you put together this huge presentation packet and send it in. I think they get around 150 from across the nation, and they review them all, give you feedback, and select so many to go on and build out their presentation even more. I got to do that this year, and it was so interesting. The plot of land is in Miami, Florida, which, I am not a beach person (much more of a mountain person), so I didn’t know much about Miami, but I got to do that the first two weeks of the semester. It was maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done but also the most rewarding because we got to learn so much about Miami, the specific area of it, and what people live there, what kind of jobs are there, what they need from their environment. This one specifically was a food desert; they didn’t have any grocery stores nearby. Like I said it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it is something I will absolutely carry with me throughout the rest of my collegiate career, my master’s program, and definitely into the workforce.  

H: Definitely! Talk about rewarding.  

S: Yes, it was definitely very stressful but so rewarding to get to put all this work in and see this beautiful presentation packet come out that you felt like could really make a difference in someone’s life if they implemented these things in the city. 

H: Can you tell us a little bit about what being a part of ULI was like, and how did you become a part of it? 

S: Yeah, honestly, it came to me, and I hate to say that, but I think one of the big areas they look for someone to help out in is the proforma financial statement. I think I fit into that really well because my background is in finance and I’m a construction science major, so I was able to straddle that line really well, but for master’s students, I think they send out a link every year where you can show your interest. If anyone is interested, I highly recommend reaching out to the director of your program about it and learning more or feel free to reach out to me. I think the coolest thing about it is you get to interact with students from all of the other different College of Architecture majors. For me, as a construction student, I came in and went straight into construction classes, and I didn’t really spend time with Architecture students, Interior Design, or Regional & City Planning students. This was a great opportunity because we were forced into a room together for 80 hours a week for two weeks, and I grew such an appreciation for what they do because I didn’t have a great understanding of it before. There’s so much work that goes into planning out a city development, an architect really conceptualizing what a building is going to look like and I truly had no idea. It was such a great opportunity to really interact with all of the different majors within the college and to learn a little bit more about them in a way that is very real-world, and I loved picking their brains the whole time.  

H: Yeah, and from there you can compare, critique, and review each other based on your different viewpoints.  

S: Absolutely, and that totally came into it. For example, we had a Landscape Architecture master’s student, and she wanted so much green space. Her plans were beautiful, but then I had to come in as the construction/finance student and tell her that it would be great, but we can’t really make money from a park or get public financing from putting a park in. The architects were thinking about affordable housing, and how tall we could make the building, but we also had to think about what we could really afford to do from a realistic perspective. It was a lot of push/pull, challenging each other, asking questions, and I think all of us really walked away with a better appreciation for what our colleagues are going through that we don’t see every day. It was such a great experience. 

H: Yeah, that’s fantastic! So, what is your favorite thing about Gibbs? 

S: It’s funny, I was just talking to a prospective master’s student and they asked me the same question. To be totally honest, it sounds cliché, but I think it’s the professors. I come from the College of Business, and I loved my undergraduate education—I would never change it—but a lot of the professors in Business went and got Ph.D.’s and did research. They never went out into the industry and worked, so that is just not the case at all at Gibbs. All of the professors that I have gone to class with all have real-world experience and a lot of them still have one foot in academia and one foot in the real world, so it provides such a great perspective. The project that I talked about, Bradford House, the professor we covered that with was actually doing work on-site, and that’s how he had so much access. It makes such a difference because, at the end of the day, the theory and keywords are important, but how it is applied in the real world is so important because that experience will help prepare you so much more for when you graduate. I think all of the professors in the construction science department bring that to the classroom and really provide all of that aspect in all of their teachings. I love the professors, and I think they make Gibbs what it is.  

H: It is definitely a very unique thing to Gibbs. 

S: It is, and I don’t know that all the student really get that, but as someone who came from a business background, it’s not what you see in other colleges. 

H: What’s funny is, this is like the ninth or tenth podcast that we’ve recorded, and I think every single person has said that the professors and the experience they allow is their favorite part of Gibbs. 

S: Yeah, I listened to some previous episodes, and I tried to come up with a more original answer, but you hit the nail on the head, why reinvent the wheel? 

H: I love it! I think it’s the coolest thing! Now, when and why did you first become interested in Construction? 

S: Yeah, I kind of touched on this earlier, but like I said, I was your typical undergraduate student who had no idea what I was doing with my life. For those that do, I’m so impressed by you. I was going into my junior year, possibly my senior year, and I was really struggling. I had done a few internships, but I really didn’t love anything. At that point, your junior/senior year, you’ve already committed. So, of course, I was complaining to my older sisters, as you do when you’re the baby of the family, but my oldest sister called me out of the blue one day and said that she had found the perfect job for me. She told me, “you need to be a construction project manager” and just silence. I had no idea where this was coming from; it was completely out of left field. She said her best friend’s husband was a construction project manager, and that he reminded her so much of me. So, I started doing research to see what OU had to offer. I found the program, but at that point, I was a junior or senior and I was not about to change my major. So, I graduated and went to work, but the idea stayed in the back of my mind that maybe this would be good for me. As I was finishing up my three years ad JP Morgan, I was asking around and talking to people in construction, and I liked what they had to say. To be completely honest, it was a total leap of faith. I liked what people said about construction, I thought I had some qualities that would make me good at it, but I really just went for it. I wasn’t sure it was the right choice but I just did it, and I’m so glad that I did because I’ve loved the last year. I’ve loved being a master’s student, loved what I’ve learned in the classroom, and loved what I’ve done working, so I think it has totally paid off. It was definitely one of those things, though, where I kind of just went for it and hoped for the best. 

H: That takes a lot of courage! 

S: It was definitely not an easy decision, there were a lot of phone calls to mom about if I was doing the right thing, but I’m glad I made the decision. 

H: Yeah, it sounds like you are where you’re meant to be. What do you plan on doing after you graduate next year and how will it affect your career? 

S: As I said, I’m working in the industry right now; I’m working for a small general contractor. I’m going to be interning with Turner Construction later this summer. Of course, my start date got pushed back because of all things coronavirus, but I’m so excited to be working with them. I think I’m going to be going down that “project manager” route that originally got me interested, but I’ve seen so many different sides of construction that you can get involved in. I think, for me, I’ll try to stick to the project management route and hopefully go to work for a general contractor after graduation and see where it goes from there. That’s the plan at this point; who knows where next year we’ll be, but that’s what I’m hoping for. We’ll see, coronavirus has thrown a wrench in a lot of people’s plans. 

H: That’s fantastic! And oh, yes, we have yet to figure out what the new normal is. Can you tell us a little bit about the master’s program in general for people who are considering it? 

S: Yeah! From my perspective, the master’s program is an awesome opportunity, especially if you’re trying to make a jump from one industry to another or if you’re trying to advance yourself within construction. As I said, I just had a call with a prospective student who does home inspections and is looking to stay in construction but make a move, so I think it’s great one way or the other. From my perspective, I had no experience and feel like I’ve still been able to stick with the program and understand. It’s a two-year program; some programs are one year, but I think OU does it right with a two-year program. The first year you really focus on the fundamentals, so a lot of the classes you take are the same no matter what experience level you are coming in with. I think that’s really great because it brings all the incoming students together and you get to share that experience level, what you’ve been doing, or are doing, and you see these theories you’re learning play out in real life. I think it’s great that they make sure everyone sticks together in those first two semesters, and then the second year of the program is more focused—I would say—on research.

S: Generally, as a master’s student, you do a thesis or some type of special studies project and that’s your focus in the second year. For me, I’m trying to mold it, right now, but I’m going to try to take advantage of this unique time we’re in now to see how coronavirus is impacting the industry, so that’s what I plan to focus on for the next year. Some students will focus on that, some will look at construction management education, some something completely different, and it’s interesting because everyone had their own interests and you get to see it all play out when they present their research. So, a two-year program, first-year is fundamentals, the second year is generally research; it’s nice because they give you the flexibility to take classes that are not necessarily construction-specific. Next semester, I’m taking a Regional & City Planning (RCPL) Class called Urban Economic Development, and I’m excited; I think it will be super fascinating. They give you that flexibility to maybe explore other parts of the college, and the best thing about it (if I could pick one thing) is that it’s a very small program. You get so much one-on-one time with the professors; you get to know them on a deep level, and they kind of get to know you which plays well when they talk to companies about you because they know you and can really speak to your strengths. That’s a huge benefit of the program as well. 

H: Yeah, absolutely. That’s awesome! It’s cool that they give you that flexibility to take other classes. It makes you a more well-rounded individual. 

S: Absolutely, and like I said, I’m taking one in the RCPL major, and they were super open to me wanting to explore that interest, especially after I did ULI. They were very supportive of it, and I know some students who go the architecture route and one student took an economics class at one point, so we all have diverse interests and I like that we all get to explore that. 

H: Awesome! What should prospective students know about your major that would help them succeed in the future? 

S: I think this is one of the toughest questions because you just never know. I think the most important thing to succeed in this major and any major is really getting involved in your major: getting to know your professors, your other classmates, and (especially in the Construction Science program) taking advantage of the hands-on learning. I know Patrick Barton was on previously and his is a podcast that everyone should go listen to, but he talked about Professor Bloom’s design-build class, how they actually got to construct a building and there are lots of opportunities just like that. I think that class sounds super interesting, and I want to take it next year. Also, both graduate and undergraduate students have the opportunity to take part in student competitions where you get a real case and they have real-life issues that you get to come up with real-life solutions for. I did it in February and it was such a great opportunity to get to meet people in the industry and thinking critically about problems that we are all going to run into at one point or another. Taking advantage of those opportunities gives you a different level of understanding and getting to know your professors and classmates gives you a leg-up when going into the industry. Make sure to take advantage of the classes and the internships will set up any prospective student to succeed. 

H: Yeah! I swear, every time I talk to somebody, I hear about a new class or a new program. Gibbs has so much to offer and there’s something for everyone! 

S: I completely agree. Between the classes and whatnot, you can explore the different things that each person likes, and I think that is the mark of a great program. Not everyone wants to do the same thing and that’s okay. We don’t want all buildings to look the same, so it’s really great that everyone can go their own way and specialize where they want. I really appreciate you guys having me and letting me tell you a little bit about my experience and the master’s program. If anyone has any questions, they are always welcome to reach out to me and I’d be happy to talk more about it. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.