Class of 2021: Water Runs Through Engineering Student’s Plans

May 5, 2021 By Matt Kelly, Matt Kelly,

Zavier Richards has feet on two continents – and he wants to solve problems in both places.

Richards, graduating this month from the University of Virginia with a degree in civil engineering from the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, is focusing on water issues, locally with the Meadowcreek watershed and internationally in Guyana, the country from which his parents came (Richards holds dual citizenships in Guyana and the United States).

“My parents are from Guyana, and I have always been told there has been an issue with the infrastructure there,” he said. “When I went to visit, I got to see that up close and personal. It is called ‘the land of many waters,’ but people rarely have water to drink and to use properly for taking showers and things of that nature. Going into school, I wanted to be able to change that.”

Richards, a first-generation college student, said he plans to work with water because of its importance.

“Water is one of the most essential things in the world for everyone,” he said. “Coming from a privileged background in America and being able to go to other countries and see how they handle their water issues – stormwater, irrigation, drinking water – I realize we are very fortunate in the position we have and I can go to these other nations and possibly make a difference.”

While he is concerned about resources in Guyana, Richards is working with other engineering students on a capstone project examining in Charlottesville’s Meadowcreek, determining the issues that affect the stream and proposing green infrastructure solutions, such as green roofs to reduce stormwater runoff.

“First we tried to figure out where the problem areas were, and then all the feasible areas we can do work on,” he said. “Currently, we are working on a design for implementing those infrastructure practices that would be beneficial to the hot spot areas that we identified. It is more of a recommendation, an idea of what we can do in that area to really make an impact and be cost-     effective as well.”

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Once the project is done, Richard wants to give copies to the various stakeholders in the health of the creek, such as Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville.

A New York City resident, Richards found UVA by way of Church Farm School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an all-male boarding high school. 

“From there, I was shown the opportunities that are available,” he said. “I had a great guidance counselor and she told me that UVA paid 100% of need, and I was one of those students. It was a beautiful school when I came to visit, and it has a great engineering program.”

Richards was drawn to engineering because of what an engineer can do, rather than pursuing a career of research.

“I have always been good at math and science,” he said. “I think with engineering, there are more opportunities for applying the work, and it is a high-end skill that can be used in the world. In engineering, you can use your intellect to make changes and create new ideas effectively and quickly.”

Lindsay Ivey Burden, an assistant professor in the Department of Systems and Information Engineering, describes Richards as a “kind and caring student.”

“It’s is very evident that he wants to use his talents to help better the world,” Burden said. “He shows this not only by getting involved with causes he cares about, but also in the way he treats his fellow classmates. Zavier is very engaged, both in and outside of the classroom. He would always sit in the front row of my class, which always impresses a professor because no one ever wants to sit in the front row.”

Richards already has a job lined up with Gilbane Building Company’s New York City office          .

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“I will be working as a project engineer there, starting in June,” he said. “Gilbane is more construction management than it is water resources, so I am looking to get into a more environmental role and really push my career toward that path. I would like to transition to something more in my degree areas. I recently talked to someone who has an engineering firm in Guyana and there is a possibility I can go down there and have an impact there as well.

“I want to be remembered for doing important and engaging work and knowing that when I pass, I have impacted someone else’s life in an influential way, such as believing in themselves and becoming the best version of themselves,” he said.

Jonathan Goodall, a professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, has advised Richards on his research and was his academic adviser for his civil engineering work.

“Zavier is a determined student,” Goodall said. “He came in with a plan, and worked thoughtfully and strategically to accomplish it. As just one example, he was strategic with his internships over the summer and that led to his new job. As a student, he was focused and active in class. As a person, Zavier is funny, creative, and curious. I enjoyed my conversations with him and look forward to seeing where his career takes him.”

Rider W Foley, associate professor of science, technology and society in the Department of Engineering and Society, met Richards as a second-year student in his “Responsible Innovation” course, in which Richards “flourished,” he said. 

“He is thoughtful, kind and an engaged student who is going to succeed in his engineering career,” Foley said. “Zavier returned to join me this semester in his fourth year and, while the online class changed the classroom dynamic, he remained a dedicated student whose work in environmental engineering is tremendous.”

Foley said Richard’s Guyanese roots and his New York City experience “offer him unique perspectives on the challenges facing urban communities and cultures beyond the United States. I know that he will bring an appreciation for diverse cultures and communities into his engineering practice, as he works to design and create engineering projects.”

Richards, who was vice president of the Student Organization of Caribbean Awareness and mentor chair of Hoos First Look Mentors, will take many memories of UVA with him when he goes out in the world, including adjusting to video-conferenced classes in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has been quite difficult learning on Zoom, and since I have asynchronous courses, it is even more so,” he said. “Coming to college, time management is a real key thing, and being able to push myself to do the work. I guess I wasn’t prepared for that and sometimes I would lag behind on things and it was quite a struggle.

“I’ve spent most of my time with a close-knit group of friends, so I will mostly remember that,” he said. “It was a good academic challenge for me. This is so different than high school. The Lighting of the Lawn was a fun time, and when we won the [NCAA] basketball championship – that was a really epic moment.”

Richards said he has learned self-confidence.

“Coming in, I thought I knew what I was doing,” he said. “I was at the top of my class in high school, and then coming here with these amazing, talented kids from all over the country, the top of the top, I realized I had to compete and push myself. Coming to UVA and college in general opened my mind to the possibilities of what I can really do to elevate myself as a person.”

He also came to understand how important his friends were to keeping him centered.

“I had to rely on those friend groups to keep me stable and level-headed,” he said. “It showed me there are so many opportunities and that you can really be able to pivot once you have the skill to be an engineer, and that you can really go into other fields and not just focus on one thing in life.”

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications