When someone tells you that they’re a president, a senator, and have worked in the White House, you’re bound to be impressed.

But when they say that Santa Claus was once their neighbor, you might start getting a little suspicious.

Washington State University’s Alyssa Norris can truthfully claim all these things- and more.

We recently caught up with the civil engineering major and asked her how she found her way from Alaska, to Pullman, Washington and what advice she has for students trying to discover their path to success.

Alyssa Norris standing at a podium.
Alyssa Norris speaks at an ASWSU meeting.

What was it like growing up in North Pole, Alaska?

Growing up in a rural area forced me to be innovative and think outside the box. I also had to be prepared: you never know what to expect with weather, or things breaking down and you have to be resourceful and self-sufficient. I worked at a fishing lodge growing up, where I learned how to work with people of different backgrounds, and relate to people who are different from me.

And yes, there actually is a Santa Claus house in town with a man who dresses up as Santa as a full-time job and there is a reindeer park as well. I am not kidding! (read more about North Pole, Alaska)

Why did you choose to go to WSU?

After touring the campus and meeting with a few engineering professors and students, I felt at home and I knew that I wanted to attend WSU. The hands on opportunities at WSU intrigued me, and everyone I met seemed excited about being a Coug and studying engineering. I am glad that I decided to attend WSU; it has been one of my best decisions.

Why major in engineering?

I enjoy solving problems, and I have always enjoyed math and science. I want to make a difference in the world, and I think that one of the best ways to do that is by studying engineering and gaining the technical skills to solve the root of a problem, rather than symptoms of a problem.

When I was in high school I played a lot of sports (including cross country running and skiing), and I noticed that many of my friends were developing breathing problems such as asthma. I also volunteered at the local hospital and realized that many people had breathing problems. I began wondering why there were so many people who were having troubles, and so I began doing some research. I found out that my hometown in Alaska had some of the worst air quality in the world due to heating and transportation pollution. I realized that instead of alleviating the symptoms, I wanted to solve the problem by studying environmental engineering.

Alyssa Norris standing near wind turbines.
NREL wind farm

What activities are you involved with at WSU?

I’m involved with several organizations on campus. Currently, I’m the chapter president of the Society of Women Engineers, I’m an Associated Students of Washington State University (ASWSU) senator, and I’m also a member of the Harold Frank Engineering Entrepreneurship Institute and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

I wanted the opportunity to get to know and work with students of different backgrounds, and I wanted to be more involved in the engineering community. I have always had a passion for business, innovation, and leadership, and I wanted to give back to WSU.

Related: Governor Jay Inslee named Norris as WSU’s student representative on the Board of Regents for the 2017-18 academic year.

What did you do last summer?

This past summer I had the opportunity to intern for the US Department of Energy, where I worked on the issue of our country’s aging energy infrastructure. I also worked on a science, technology, engineering, and math enrichment program, which introduced economically disadvantaged youth in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore to STEM careers and opportunities as a component of President Obama’s Summer Opportunity employment initiative. I was able to present the project at the White House, and the program will be implemented in 11 different cities next summer.

The internship was in Washington, D.C. at the Department of Energy headquarters and it was an amazing experience. I was able to learn about the policy side of decision making, and I was able to utilize my technical skill set to help me in my projects.

Alyssa Norris posing with United States Capitol under construction in the background.
Washington D.C.

How do you keep your head above water?

I am a pretty busy person, but two things that help me keep my head above water are lists with deadlines, to help keep me accountable and remind me of my tasks; and taking time every week to focus on myself and recharge. I will set aside time to unplug and relax by taking a walk, reading, or just doing something by myself. Taking that time to calm myself and do something I enjoy allows me to be more productive and get things accomplished.

Any advice for future Coug engineers?

Take advantage of the opportunities around you. Find something that you are passionate about, whether it is in your major or not, and get involved. I would also recommend that students go to their professor’s office hours. Getting to know your professors can help you not only in classes, but it can open up many opportunities in research, scholarships, and it can help prepare you for your career.

Engineering is difficult, but if you work hard, ask for help when you need it, and stay determined, then it is absolutely possible to succeed. WSU offers so many great hands on opportunities for engineering students, and the faculty and staff are truly world class. There is a fit for every engineering student at WSU, and the university does an excellent job of meeting the needs of the students and providing opportunities for growth and success.