A Team Player and Role Model — Professionally, Academically and Athletically
Honored for high academic and athletic achievements, leadership and service, Allison Buffenbarger ’22 accepts a full-time position at bp
From an early age, Allison Buffenbarger ’22 was heavily interested in two things: engineering and field hockey.
What drew her to Stevens Institute of Technology was the opportunity to pursue both.
“I wanted to play field hockey in college and was playing competitively at a young age,” she explained. “Engineering is a difficult major, so a lot of programs are hesitant to put people on their team. Stevens really stood out to me. That's how I made my way up to New Jersey.”
Stevens would take Buffenbarger from her home state of Virginia through five hockey seasons in New Jersey and three professional engineering intensives in three different states, ultimately landing her on a career track with integrated energy company bp in Houston, Texas.
In between, she would graduate with high honors with a Bachelor of Engineering in electrical engineering with a concentration in power engineering, and be named — amongst other honors — 2021 Middle Atlantic Conference Freedom Tournament Most Valuable Player, a three-time Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Power and Energy Society Scholar, and a Tau Beta Pi Association Scholar.
She would also find herself serving as a role model to young girls searching for their place in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
“Stevens really prepared me for where I am in life,” Buffenbarger said.
A growth mindset
Growing up in Leesburg, Virginia, Buffenbarger began her career with a childhood love for LEGOs. But she credits her years at the Foxcroft School, a private all-girls high school in nearby Middleburg, for solidifying both her interest in engineering and her confidence in pursuing it.
“I had a wonderful support system there in terms of growing my passion for math and science that really set me up for success,” she said.
That’s not to say the journey was easy, however.
Certain subjects, like calculus, had her doubting the career path she’d set for herself.
“I almost went through this identity crisis at 16 because something I'd always wanted to be, I wasn't good at,” she said. “I really had to change my mindset and understand that everything is a learned skill.”
Buffenbarger would revisit this experience when co-chairing the first virtual Stevens/Society of Women Engineers (SWE) K-12 Intro to Engineering Day in Fall 2020.
“There was this girl in seventh or eighth grade who said, ‘I really like STEM, but I'm not good at math.’ And I told her, ‘I'm not good at math. I have to work really hard. But I don't think people are good or bad: it's a matter of learning. Anybody can be good if you set your mind to it.’”
One advantage to having her STEM identity crisis early was that she no longer questioned whether she belonged in the field by the time she entered college. Facing those anxieties early also made the transition to Stevens’ coed environment easier.
“I would sometimes be the only girl in my entire classroom, but that wasn't something that really bothered me,” Buffenbarger said.
A change of focus
Originally enrolled as a biomedical engineering major, Buffenbarger switched to electrical engineering as a result of Stevens’ freshman Intro to Engineering course.
Instead of presenting formal PowerPoint slides about the industry, the electrical engineering professor, Buffenbarger said with a laugh, “did a Google search of electrical engineering careers. He put up the News tab, and millions of results came back [showing] you could pretty much work in every industry imaginable.”
Buffenbarger participated in the Stevens Cooperative Education program, a five-year program that provides undergraduate students the opportunity to alternate full-time professional experience with full-time academic study.
One highlight of the program is co-op Interview Day, which brings students together on campus with dozens of hiring companies for formal, if fast, job interviews.
“It's almost like speed dating,” Buffenbarger said. “I've spoken to friends who have co-op programs, and Stevens is truly unique in that we have a day where you can have 10 interviews.”
At only 23 years old, Buffenbarger estimates she’s already participated in approximately 35 interviews, with more than half resulting directly from co-op Interview Days.
The experience, she said, helped bolster her conversational confidence and opened her mind to a wider variety of career possibilities.
“That’s how I got over to BorgWarner,” she said.
Buffenbarger’s first co-op position was as part of the Electrical Support Group with automotive supplier BorgWarner in Ithaca, New York, in spring of 2019.
For seven months she was responsible for fabricating, wiring, and soldering equipment like plugs and circuit boards, as well as doing breadboard modeling, so mechanical engineers could run output tests, like speed, temperature and pressure.
As a visual learner, she found the hands-on experience invaluable for helping her “really understand what I was learning in the classroom.”
The following spring, Buffenbarger joined ExxonMobil for five months as an instrumentation intern at a chemical plant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“I did a lot of work with modification of change,” she said. “I’d review the work of contractors, get bid approvals, look at piping and instrumentation diagrams and try to figure out where is the best spot to put this transducer. You were the boots on the ground navigating through the plant.”
In addition to learning “a ton” on both jobs, Buffenbarger said the co-op experience gave her insight into both different industries and different career approaches.
“Borg was a highly technical electrical engineering role, versus at Exxon, I was learning the day-to-day operations and how to make sure they're able to run correctly. So applied engineering versus very hands-on.”
An unexpected opportunity
When the world was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic starting in March 2020, Buffenbarger was only halfway through her co-op with ExxonMobil.
Rather than travel home, she and her fellow co-op roommates remained in Louisiana, pulling their desks and kitchen table together to transform their apartment into a remote satellite office.
The makeshift setup resulted in unexpected advantages. Because the roommates together covered three areas of engineering, they were able to lean on each other when reaching their mentors or coworkers proved difficult under pandemic conditions.
“I probably learned more about mechanical and chemical [engineering] than I would have if I had stayed back in the office,” she said.
Navigating new remote work requirements also resulted in unexpected developmental gains.
Zoom meetings, for example, forced Buffenbarger to get over her nervousness with public speaking while also requiring a heightened need for self-reliance.
“Because your mentor wasn't sitting with you at a desk when you had a conversation with a contractor, you really had to know your stuff — a lot more probably than I would have had to in the office,” she said.
“COVID really challenged you out of your comfort zone because you were kind of a man on an island. If you were going to make a good impact on your co-op, you had to have ownership of what you were doing completely.”
Finding a place
In the summer before senior year, Buffenbarger joined bp as a project controls intern as her final co-op placement. The project management role was responsible for creating, optimizing, and standardizing planning, processes, and costs for a project based in Trinidad.
“I really didn't have any exposure to electrical engineering, but they recruit engineers for the role because when you’re learning to be an engineer, you learn how to learn,” she said. “The other big component was working on a team and managing a project, so my design courses had a much bigger impact than my electrical engineering skill set.”
Despite working remotely from Hoboken due to the ongoing pandemic, Buffenbarger interacted regularly with her team in Texas and Trinidad.
“I had this wonderful line manager who is my boss still today. He would set aside 30 minutes every single day to chat. It made me feel so interconnected to what was going on in Houston, and I had other team members that were the same way.”
Buffenbarger is quick to praise the Stevens co-op experience, emphasizing the breadth of opportunities it offers beyond traditional short-term internships.
“Because co-op is over such a long period of time, you truly understand what it means to be a full-time employee. You have ownership for your work and over more than just one project,” she said. “I truly cannot advocate more for the co-op program.”
Leading in difficult times
In Fall 2020, Buffenbarger returned to Hoboken, where she attended classes remotely from an off-campus apartment.
This was meant to be her first semester as captain of the varsity field hockey team, but with the COVID-19 pandemic still an evolving situation, games, events and social interactions were put on hold. Buffenbarger found herself leading a team of athletes into a season where athletics weren’t allowed.
“We always felt like that season got ripped out from under us,” she said.
In lieu of practices, the team met weekly online and participated in virtual activities like Pictionary, watch parties, and other team bonding activities.
Although Buffenbarger tried her best to keep morale up, “it was tough, I'm not gonna lie,” she said. “You had people that were into it, and you had people that were like, ‘I don't see the point of this.’ Those feelings were valid. It was a very difficult time to be a leader because you didn't always know how to best provide support to each person and the team as a whole.”
The unique pressures of being an athlete also compounded the stresses. With no way of knowing whether or when the playing season might spontaneously return, the team was expected to stay in shape just in case.
“The expectation that you need to still be exercising and be on your game when the world is in chaos and sad, it was hard on a lot of people on the team,” she said.
The experience gave Buffenbarger a new insight into how to approach leadership.
“Me and my captains, we didn't always get it right. But what I learned as a leader was you need to listen to those around you and, sometimes, just shut up,” she said. “I learned about compassion and being more a gentle leader than a hardo just out giving the rules.”
A killer season
Many upper-level student-athletes lost their last chance to play before graduating when the university went remote in Fall 2020.
Fortunately, as a five-year student, Buffenbarger was able to return the following year — her last at Stevens — to once more serve as field hockey team captain. By then, the team was again able to play together with safety protocols like masks and twice-weekly COVID testing in place.
“Everything was going pretty normal, and then a few weeks in, we had [COVID-19] symptoms on the team. Nobody actually had COVID, thankfully, but we had a game canceled,” Buffenbarger said. “Everybody got kind of scared, because it isn't back to normal. It can get taken away at any moment.”
The pent-up frustration from losing a year, plus the risk of forfeiting more games (which would also affect a player’s record) inspired many players to leave their all on the field in Fall 2021.
“We had a killer season. That was the best season we've had in my entire five years. Everybody was so gritty,” she said. “We ended up going to NCAAs, which we had never experienced in my time there."
Buffenbarger, a midfielder, started in all 20 games of her final season. Named to the President’s List for high academic achieving student-athletes all five years, she received the John A. Davis Award in Spring 2021 for her athletic ability, integrity, and perseverance under difficult circumstances.
After three years as a representative, Buffenbarger also served in her senior year as Student-Athlete Advisory Committee President.
Tackling a complex problem
Buffenbarger completed her senior design capstone project as part of a seven-person team of mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineers tasked with designing a surface vehicle capable of cleaning water that had been subject to an oil spill. The oil would be collected using smart polymer technology attached to a conveyor belt system that moved through oxidation and reduction chambers on the vessel.
Buffenbarger was responsible for developing the electrical components of the oxidation and reduction chambers and making sure the system was electrically isolated so it could be deployed safely in water.
“We were presented with a really complex problem, but we got it to work,” she said. “We tested it for floatability and to make sure it was structurally sound. We were able to successfully collect oil. It was really exciting.”
Building a sustainable future
After graduation, Buffenbarger returned to the Project Controls team at bp onsite in Houston, where she is now in her first year of the company’s multi-year graduate program, which rotates recent college graduates through a series of full-time positions.
Beginning with cost engineering, she will gain exposure in all three areas of project controls — which also includes planning engineering and cost estimating — before choosing which one suits her best.
Working closely with project managers and leads, her current role, she said, “is very different from anything I've ever done. But I like it because it's this cool space of figuring out how can we optimize the amount of money that we have, where are the opportunities, where are the pressures — and a lot of risk assessment as well.”
Focused on the business side of engineering, the position fits right in her wheelhouse.
“I don't think I've ever really wanted to be a technical specialist for electrical engineering. I wanted to project manage. I love being on a team where you're all trying to figure out how do you tackle a problem to come up with the best solution.”
Long-term, Buffenbarger plans to return to school for an MBA and hopes to get involved in sustainable energy.
Still involved with SWE and in her local community, she also hopes to find new ways to give back the way her own mentors did for her.
“When I had moments of conflict, I had people — specifically women — who picked me up. I had very strong women at an early age really encourage me to pursue STEM, and they made all the difference in where I am right now. I want to give that to other people.”