Avalon Kandrac ’19 is seeking sustainable solutions
At a glance
After witnessing the destruction wrought by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Avalon was inspired to act.
When she graduated from high school, research opportunities and the HOPE Scholarship made UGA the ideal place to pursue her career goals.
She is proactively encouraging women to join the engineering field.
“I think a lot of girls tend to drop out of engineering because they don’t have other women pushing them forward. Since I have been at UGA, I have taken every advantage. I have gone to every career fair and applied to every internship that I could find. I think it is important for women engineers to know that those options exist.”
Avalon Kandrac ’19 has always felt at home near the water. Family vacations took her to the Alabama coast, and “The Little Mermaid” fueled her enchantment with the ocean. So, when the 14-year-old witnessed the devastation that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill left on the Gulf Coast, she felt compelled to do something. She was in Fort Morgan, Alabama, when she watched her white beaches turn black.
“Before the oil even came to the beach, it smelled like a gas station,” Avalon recalls. “Then, one day we woke up and it was all over the beach, and I just cried.”
This inspired Avalon to participate in beach cleanup efforts and the NOAA shark tagging program. She and her father helped attach rototags to the back of the sharks’ dorsal fins, so that biologists could track their migration patterns. The oil spill also showed Avalon that ecological devastation can have grave economic consequences for those who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods.
“I remember that a fisherman who worked at a marina down the road shot himself because his fisheries were gone and he couldn’t make a living,” she said. “It was one of those pivotal moments where I realized that you think these events only happen in the news, but there it was happening in my small town.”
After spending most of her middle school years being homeschooled in Alabama, Avalon returned to public education and graduated from high school in Georgia. The research opportunities and HOPE Scholarship made UGA the ideal place to pursue her career goals. When she first enrolled, she anticipated majoring in marine biology, but her Freshman Odyssey bioenergy class with associate professor Sudhagar Mani motivated her to explore engineering. At first, she doubted whether she could manage being the only woman in her classes, and if she could tackle the hefty math and science course requirements. Avalon says that UGA helped push her outside of her comfort zone.
“It’s kind of scary to walk in as a freshman and just see all boys in your classes. The number of women enrolled in engineering is rising, but I did not make a single girlfriend in my classes freshman year. I had to learn to bond with the boys.”
Today, as a biological engineering major with an environmental emphasis, she plans to encourage other women to do the same by serving as the fall president of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Avalon reached out to SWE as a way to meet other female students majoring in engineering on campus, and she says the panel discussions and networking opportunities have been invaluable. Avalon intends to offer more networking opportunities to help engineering students find internships, co-ops, and jobs after graduation.
“I think a lot of girls tend to drop out of engineering because they don’t have other women pushing them forward,” Avalon says. “Since I have been at UGA, I have taken every advantage. I have gone to every career fair and applied to every internship that I could find. I think it is important for women engineers to know that those options exist.”
One of her favorite opportunities has been volunteering with the Coral Restoration Foundation in Bonaire, Netherland Antilles. Coral restoration involves growing coral on underwater trees to support its regeneration, then implanting these baby corals onto restoration reef sites.
“By protecting the coral, you’re protecting the tourism economy in small coastal communities that rely on divers coming to the area,” she said. “The way I want to use my degree is to figure out how we can build things that are safe for the earth and safe for the people who will use them.”
In addition to SWE, Avalon is involved with the American Society of Agricultural & Biological Engineers, Student Government Association, serves as a College of Engineering student ambassador, and teaches Les Mills BODYPUMP fitness classes at the Ramsey Center and local YMCAs.
“They actually held a BODYPUMP training at Ramsey and the cost of my certification was partially subsidized by UGA. I get paid to work out, which is cool.”
Most recently, the third-year student has been interning at Walt Disney World in the Environmental Programs department, helping the company reach its sustainability goals. She only intended to intern with Disney for one semester, but was offered a summer extension. She is now helping reduce emissions and electricity usage in the park, by creating and implementing programs to retrofit parks and resorts lighting to LED.
“It’s been an invaluable experience, and I know that what I have learned here can’t be learned in a classroom,” Avalon says. “When I went into engineering, I thought it was a self-sufficient major, but I was proven wrong at Disney. My job is collaborative and I really enjoy reaching out and meeting people.”
Avalon’s long-term career plans are to become a licensed professional engineer at a large company in Atlanta, and earn an MBA. She cherishes her memories of ringing the chapel bell, attending football games, and hanging out on North Campus. She says that UGA taught her to “work hard, even when you doubt yourself.”
“I doubted that I could be an engineer, become a certified fitness instructor, or intern at Disney, but I’m here today,” she says. “Every time I doubt myself, UGA pushes me and says ‘yes you can,’ and it’s been a wonderful lesson.”