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Faces of Freese and Nichols: Helen Salama, EIT

December 06, 2019

During the workday, Engineer-In-Training Helen Salama helps cities provide clean water to their townspeople as a transmission and utilities engineer in San Antonio.

Outside of the office she volunteers hundreds of hours mentoring college students, helping refugees both locally and abroad, the homeless, the elderly, and those less fortunate. She mentors San Antonio’s next generation of students, ranging from elementary to college age, encouraging them to pursue higher education and careers in STEM fields. In her spare time, she volunteers with her church, American Water Works Association, Meals On Wheels, Engineers Without Borders, Water for People, an ESL class for native Spanish speakers and a San Antonio homeless shelter, Haven for Hope.

“My passion for serving is grounded in the belief that we’re blessed to be a blessing to others,” she said. “It is a luxury to have the capacity and time to serve others. I believe it’s my duty to give back to my city, those around me, and those in need abroad as well. Whether that’s through mentoring students or by developing various programs, it has been such a joy to serve others.”

She’s currently performing a needs evaluation through Engineers Without Borders for a low-water crossing in Nicaragua. Annually, intense rainfall leads to flooding, which blocks off one part of the town from the other and cuts access to food, schools and medical supplies. The villagers risk their lives by trying to cross during flooding. Her report will help the Nicaraguan community and volunteer engineers assess needs and determine which kind of structure is most efficient. Last summer she also served as an Arabic-English translator for doctors and nurses in Lebanon helping refugees in need of medical assistance. 

“One thing that struck me while meeting refugees in Lebanon and in San Antonio is that it’s easy to witness their need and imagine how I would feel if I were in their shoes,” she said. “Contemplating their situations from their perspectives allows me to identify where I can help most.”

What do you like to do for fun?

I love exploring nature, hiking and kayaking. With the Team FNI Bonus, I decided to buy two kayaks and head to the San Marcos River. I also enjoy backpacking through mountain ranges. I kicked off the first weekend of November by backpacking up the tallest peak in Texas – the Guadalupe Mountain National Park. It’s exciting to conquer different outdoors achievements alongside friends.

How would you sum up what you do?

Recently, I was able to help a local community with an emergency water project, which included an accelerated design and construction schedule. We are in the process of helping them secure clean water – mostly through transmission and utilities projects, such as pump stations and pipelines. As I progress in my career, I’m looking forward to more opportunities to learn from the construction phases of projects we’ve designed.

What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?

Both of my parents were born and raised in Egypt. In Texas, I’ve had a lot of friends tell me I’m the first Egyptian person they’ve met. I’m also trilingual; I love learning new phrases and connecting with people from multiple cultures. I grew up speaking English and Arabic at home and learned Spanish throughout years of studying in school and practicing with friends as well as while volunteering. I know how to play the violin and ukulele, and I help lead worship at my church. I also love painting landscapes with acrylics.

How does Freese and Nichols compare to other firms where you are?

During college summers, I was fortunate to intern for three different industries: oil and gas, aviation and civil engineering. It’s been amazing to be a part of Freese and Nichols, where you can take as much responsibility on for a project. You’re not limited to specific tasks as an EIT. Over the course of two years, I’ve been able to serve as Assistant Project Manager early on in my career, which is something that stands out when I compare Freese and Nichols to other companies. I believe the opportunity to meet leaders at all levels is rare as well. I’ve truly enjoyed the networking and integrating into this industry.

What drew you to engineering?

I really wanted to help communities, especially with access to clean water. It’s important not only locally but all over the world. I was looking for a way to help others. I shadowed doctors during clinical rotations in high school, but I was not drawn to that career path. I took an AP Environmental Science class that introduced me to working with natural resources and the community around us. Through internships, I was able to hone in on my passion within engineering.

In addition to water being vital to life, it provides the avenue for communities to expand and thrive. You can gauge the healthy success of a community by its design of infrastructure. Through Engineers Without Borders helping communities who don’t have access to engineering insight has been a highlight. Wherever I am, there’s always going to be a need for clean water.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

For me, one of the most rewarding parts is being able to look around communities and see people’s days go seamlessly because there’s not a water crisis or shortage. Also being able to inspire youth to pursue STEM and careers in the water industry has been a highlight. I love the opportunity to work on exciting, diverse projects and present alongside clients during STEM outreach. These aspects can be very dynamic compared to what most people think of engineering.

What’s your favorite part about working at Freese and Nichols?

That it actually does feel like family. A lot of companies claim that, but that we’re able to help and encourage one another in consistent ways. If someone is overloaded or there’s a certain obstacle with family, someone else usually steps up to pitch in.

What’s your advice for young professionals trying to get into the industry?

  1. Get involved in a professional organization early on. It’s a great way to get plugged in. It was really easy for the industry to feel like home after I got connected with other EITs, PEs and Project Managers among clients and subconsultants.
  2. Find a way to give back, whether it’s a local university or program. Don’t forget about the people who might be one or two steps earlier in their career than you are.
  3. Find a mentor whom you can talk to about professional or personal stuff. Establishing that relationship early on in your career is invaluable. I have several mentors who I talk to often and learn from their perspectives. When stepping into leadership roles, having a mentor to bounce ideas of off is truly helpful as you learn how to manage different responsibilities and learn others’ communications styles. Freese and Nichols is an amazing place for young engineers to grow, so don’t lose sight of all the opportunities and mentors available.