A long road to success

Motivated by family and driven by a passion for the environment, Alexandra Bruns, civil, construction, and environmental engineering (CCEE) graduate, has pushed past several obstacles in her life to reach the final semester of her master’s degree. Despite any hardships, Bruns has maintained a positive outlook, never losing hope.

Photo courtesy of The Ames Tribune (Nirmal Majumdar)

At 33 years old, Bruns began her final semester at Iowa State this fall. Similar to most graduate students, she spends hours perfecting her research in the labs and studying in the library, but at the end of the day she returns home to her most important role—being a mom and wife.

Bruns’ four-year-old daughter, Aunika, and her husband, Raymond, have always been the driving factor in her life. Everything she does, she has them in mind. Even before Aunika was born, Bruns knew that a college education was imperative for her future family.

Although Bruns is excelling in her studies as an engineer at Iowa State, there was a time when school was very difficult for her. During early elementary, she struggled in reading and math and was placed in remedial reading classes.

In fourth grade, she was blessed with an exceptional special education teacher who helped catch her up to the other students. From then on, Bruns worked hard to stay at the top of her classwork, eventually earning a 4.0 throughout her sophomore year of high school.

“I’m so grateful for that teacher, especially since those programs are being cut these days,” Bruns explains. “I can’t wait to find her someday and say ‘Look where I am now’.”

Bruns hit another roadblock in her education when she moved from her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, to Louisiana during the winter months to care for her grandmother. For three years, she switched schools twice a year to live with her grandmother who went south for the winters. Transferring to a completely different school system in Baton Rouge, then back to Duluth for the final quarter of the school year, Bruns once again found herself behind.

In her junior year of high school, her grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and her studies suffered when she refused to go to school to stay in the hospital with her grandmother. She began working full-time at an elderly assistance in-home care facility her senior year to keep up with expenses.

After graduating from high school, she fell into the care industry, taking a job caring for mentally disabled adults in 2000. As each year passed by, the prospects of college seemed to get further away.

“Every fall, I thought of returning to school but just ended up kicking myself for missing the registration date instead,” she says. “It took some time for me to finally get back here, but eventually I made it!”

In 2006, after taking a career interest test that favored engineering, she enrolled in classes at a small community college before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where she began taking engineering courses. Simultaneously, Bruns was doing in-home care for traumatic brain injury adults, but her newly found interest in engineering took precedence.

Two years later, and five months after the birth of Aunika, Bruns transferred to Iowa State to begin her adventure. Since then, she has been perfecting the balance of home and school, sometimes getting no more than a few hours of sleep a night.

At Iowa State, she once again was faced with educational challenges. After struggling with time on an exam, Bruns was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD), a condition that also plagued her two younger sisters.

It was yet another challenge Bruns faced head-on, working hard on managing the time it took to complete tests, projects, and other school-related work while also balancing her personal life.

“The main thing I have to focus on is getting a clear understanding of how much time a task is going to take me and making sure I stay on track,” she says. “I also have to be sure not to ever miss classes and pay close attention in labs because I’m a visual learner and simply reading things is not enough.”

In the classroom, Bruns has an interest in environmental issues, which was sparked as a child and inspired by her mother. She remembers life before curbside recycling, when she and her mother would gather up all their recyclables and haul them across town to the recycling center.

“My mom also inspired my fascination with wind and solar power,” Bruns explains. “Back in the 1980’s when these were newer concepts, my mom always made sure to point out the windmills as we traveled.”

Throughout adulthood, a passion for the environment stuck with her, and she spent several summers with her husband living in the mountains of Montana with no more than a tent for shelter.

A hunting shack Alexandra and her husband called home.

From 2004–2007, they lived in what she calls a small hunting shack in rural Minnesota that was no bigger than a 12×12-foot area with a small loft for sleeping. The first winter they had no insulation or wood stove to keep them warm.

As time rolled on, they made modifications to the shack, including a composting toilet built by Bruns, which was truly the beginning of her engineering career. Despite the changes, she still had to haul clean laundry, water, and chopped wood down the quarter-mile long driveway daily after returning from her job as a house manager for mentally disabled adults.

“I loved it—it was awesome to be so close to nature. The experience has really given me an appreciation for a lot of the comforts we have today and taught me not to take them for granted,” Bruns says. “I’m glad I did it when I did because it definitely would not be as possible with a four year old.”

Taking her interests in nature to the classroom, her undergraduate studies primarily focused on water treatment. Hoping to expand her expertise, her master’s degree concentrates on air quality.

Determined to protect all she loves about nature, Bruns is working with Johannes van Leeuwen, Vlasta Klima Balloun Professor in CCEE. She has chosen to focus her research on the regulatory compliance side of air quality after interning with the DNR’s wastewater construction permitting department.

“The primary reason for my research is to see if an ethanol plant can handle an additional technology Dr. van Leeuwen is working on without going over the VOC (volatile organic compounds) and CO2 limits,” she explains.

Bruns was originally scheduled to graduate this August, but ended up pushing her date back to December after experiencing how difficult it was to get into the industry without leadership experience. This fall, she will be finishing the final three credits of her degree and plans to take on a position as president of the Water Environment Federation (WEF) student chapter on campus.

“It’s tough right now, because I’m competing against so many entry-level engineers with leadership experience in student groups,” she says. “I’m really excited by the opportunity to lead WEF and network with professionals.”

Bruns hopes to find a job in private consulting prior to graduation. After several interviews and callbacks, she feels she is getting close to her goals.

“I never thought I would say it, but I love central Iowa and I’m hoping I can find a job here,” Bruns explains. “It’s such a great place to raise a family, and to me, that’s the most important thing.”