Civil engineering student aims to connect construction and community

Joseph Cortas is a fourth-year student enrolled in the CEAS ACCEND program

Ever since he was a child, Joseph Cortas was enthralled by the energy of construction sites.

Headshot of Joseph Cortas

Joseph Cortas, CEAS Class of 2025.

While his initial fascination centered on large trucks, his childhood interest sent him down a path of professional and personal discovery. 

Today, Cortas is a fourth-year student concurrently pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering through the ACCEND accelerated degree program at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science. 

The recipient of the Cincinnati Presidential Scholarship, the Structural Engineering Institute Student Scholarship, the CEAS Undergraduate Research Fellowship, and the Kentucky Governor’s Scholarship, he has also been an active member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Structural Engineering Institute, CEAS Ambassadors, and CEAS Tribunal. After a stint as the VP of collegiate affairs for CEAS’ student government, Cortas was appointed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine as UC’s Undergraduate Student Trustee

Cortas aims to utilize his interest and knowledge of civil engineering to make a tangible impact on the lives of those in his community. 

Photo of Joseph Cortas at CEAS' High Bay Structural Lab

Joseph Cortas poses with a hardhat in the High Bay Structural Lab at CEAS.

“How we choose to build our buildings inherently affects how we interact as a society and a community as a whole,” Cortas said. “In high school, I took a college course on life and construction, which looked at how the built environment around us shapes the way that we interact with each other. It inspired me to further involve myself with a lot of community work and advocacy to build relationships with not just my classmates, but also the larger community around me, to better understand how to best utilize the things we make for people. It’s always been fascinating for me to see the intersection of engineering and how it impacts lives.”

After touring more than 10 universities, Cortas ultimately wanted an academic experience that put the student’s development and support at the center of the experience, which he found at CEAS. 

"I wanted a faculty and support system that very obviously placed the student at the center of the experience,” Cortas said. “I wanted to feel the understanding that engineering can be difficult and competitive at times. In my experience, academic and personal support permeates through CEAS, whether it’s cooperative education or instruction.”

Photo of Joseph Cortas at a Student Trustee Conference

Joseph Cortas attends a student trustee conference in Columbus, Ohio. Pictured are Jordan Conner, Deputy Director of Boards and Commissions, Collin Claywell, Operations Manager of Boards and Commissions, Haley Dees, Student Trustee from Kent State University, Natalie Dando from Youngstown State University, Kevin Bishop from the University of Toledo, and Akshat Shah from Cleveland State University.

Cortas credits the wide variety of experiences he has had during his time at UC to the connections and learning he has gained. He joined CEAS Ambassadors partially because he had such a positive experience with one when he toured UC as a high school student. He also went on to make various administrative connections through his time with CEAS Tribunal, eventually culminating in his own leadership experiences in student government. And of course, through his co-op experience, Cortas was able to tangibly contribute to his personal and professional development. 

When the time came to co-op for Cortas, he found himself excited at the vast array of possibilities ahead of him. After a comprehensive national search, Cortas chose to work in Milwaukee for HGA, an architectural engineering firm based in Minneapolis.  During his multiple rotations with the firm, Cortas was able to embark on a variety of real-world assignments, such as developing and reviewing construction drawings, performing structural analysis, and performing construction administration activities. He even got to work on a 17-story, $1.5 billion building. 

"I was abable to access a variety of options throughout my search. I was in a unique position because I didn’t have to go to any particular kind of place. I told myself that I would rather find the right position instead of worrying about where it would send me geographically, and it worked out for me,” Cortas said. 

"I thought it was a big deal that there was an emphasis from both UC and the company to do multiple co-op rotations. While it’s true that some people go to several companies, there have been many cases where students grow far more over subsequent co-op rotations with the same organization,” he said. “I was the only co-op student in a structural engineering department of around 20 people. Through time, the ability to interact so personally with people who possess so much knowledge was invaluable. I would not be where I am now if I didn’t leave my comfort zone and gain this experience through co-op.”

Photo of Joseph Cortas at CEAS' High Bay Structural Lab

Joseph Cortas photographs a test specimen during preparation for cyclic tensile testing in the High Bay Structural Lab at CEAS.

Cortas’ success with HGA and his broad range of experiences led him to his final two co-op rotations working on thesis research assignments under James Swanson and Gian Rassati, associate professors of civil engineering at UC. The work is funded by the American Institute of Steel Construction. Cortas embraces this research work, which he describes as very different from industry work, while simultaneously balancing classes as part of the ACCEND program. ACCEND students can complete four co-op rotations instead of five, with the extra academic semester in their fourth year spent beginning graduate course work. 

“The ACCEND program played a big part in influencing my decision to come to UC. I think that so many students can benefit from just taking one graduate course, but the program allows and teaches so much about balancing work and the sheer variety of paths engineers can take. "

Joseph Cortas, CEAS '25

"It's been huge to have the opportunity to work in these respective fields in addition to directly learning the material,” Cortas said. “The ACCEND program played a big part in influencing my decision to come to UC. I think that so many students can benefit from just taking one graduate course, but the program allows and teaches so much about balancing work and the sheer variety of paths engineers can take. When I think about all of the knowledge that I will have cultivated in just five years, it opens up a lot of doors. There’s an incredible amount of respect that I have for all of the faculty, academic advisers, and mentors that have helped me along the way.”

While Cortas is deeply appreciative that his masters work has allowed him to develop connections and garner experiences that he otherwise may not have, he continues searching for the perfect intersection to combine his engineering skills with the leadership ability he has acquired. 

"I've pursued various roles of leadership within the university. Whether it was being in CEAS Tribunal or a student ambassador, or being the vice president of collegiate affairs, I have always looked for ways to get involved and make a difference around me,” Cortas said. “With whatever work I pursue, I ask myself: how can the work that I do impact communities and support people where they are?”

Photo of Joseph Cortas at UC Commencement

Joseph Cortas in his capacity as Student Trustee at UC Commencement.

Reflecting back on his journey as a Bearcat, Cortas found his experiences with people to be the most impactful. He highlighted his time as a tutor with Bearcat Buddies, UC’s mentorship program for Cincinnati Public School students, and his assignment to visit Uruguay to talk about the importance of education as a part of a U.S. State Department student delegation. 

“I’ve always wanted to emphasize the importance of representation. There is a big weight to be carried when you’re an ambassador representing a community, in any sense. Realizing how much the ability to do good can actually change things is so powerful,” he said. “All of the roles that I’ve had were natural progressions in me wanting to better aid and advocate for the voices of my community. The aim to do good has been the guiding light throughout my journey, and I hope I can leave everyone that I work with in a better position for the future.”

Featured image at top: Joseph Cortas performing weld tests in the High Bay Structural Lab at CEAS. Photo/Provided

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