Kiersten Wang challenges herself off the mat.
Florida Athletics

LOS ANGELES -- Being on a successful team is nothing knew to Kiersten Wang, though the Florida gymnast’s pursuit away from the sport has been far more difficult, yet equally satisfying.

Wang is a civil engineering major and before she even decided on her career, she was exposed to how rewarding that vocation could be.

After her senior year of high school, Wang was part of a group called Bridges to Prosperity, a non-profit charity that goes to underdeveloped countries and constructs footbridges over impassable rivers in isolated rural communities, thus providing access to food, health care and schools.

Wang’s father, Todd, is a technical advisory board member for Bridges to Prosperity and has made several trips on behalf of the organization.

He was excited to bring his daughter and son with him to Nicaragua for a project. Kiersten was stunned at what she witnessed.

“It’s amazing and very eye opening,” Wang said. “Living in the U.S., you don’t travel or vacation in a third world country so it was amazing. Just flying into the city was a different atmosphere.”

While the city was like nothing Wang had ever seen, it wasn’t like the shock she got when she got to the remote village.

“We went from the city to the small town and there are people living in cardboard boxes with tarps over them or tin roofs,” Wang said. “There is no electricity or running water. People are washing their clothes and bathing in the river. God knows what is in this river.”

People who lived in the village had a choice in order to get food for their families. They can either take a roundabout route to the market that adds many miles to the trip, thus avoiding the river, or they can try and wade through the water to get to the other side.

In the dry months, it’s not as arduous of a journey. The river is fairly calm and passage is somewhat safe. When heavy tropical rains come, the river becomes a deathtrap and Wang heard stories of people being whisked down stream and drowning.

“People there don’t have cars,” Wang said. “They may have one motorcycle for six families and they all try and pack on to it. A lot of people just take their kids, put them on their shoulders and walk across the water.”

Wang watched as her father directed the group to help clear out debris and make the foundation for the footbridge.

“I didn’t do a whole lot, there was some survey stuff and there were two students from Rice," she said. "They looked to find a place and do some surveying before the whole group came down. I shadowed them and got a lot of experience.”

That summer Wang knew that she wanted to follow her father’s career path.

"In high school, you don’t really know what you want to do,” Wang said. “I knew that I liked math and science all through high school. I thought engineering dealt with math so I thought about it.”

Wang got a taste of her future major her last year in high school, taking an intro to engineering class taught by her physics teacher.

“I liked to call it advanced Legos because a lot of the time you are playing with these gadgets,” Wang said. “One of the things we did was make a tower out of balsa wood. It had to be so wide and you have to build it to see whose tower could hold the most weight. It was a lot of fun.”

It’s funny that a woman who grew up in Monument, Colorado chose engineering as a future profession, but she is happy with her decision.

“It’s definitely interesting,” Wang said. “You have the building aspect and creating stuff. I think it is a lot of fun. It’s not so much artsy creative, but I think it is more analytically creative. I like to figure out how things are designed.”

Wang even found some parallels between engineering and gymnastics.

"I think they definitely go hand in hand,” Wang said. “If you have that mentality, almost a perfectionism, it works with gymnastics. Building a bridge is going to take time to perfect it. It’s like gymnastics, you are going to get a skill, but you aren’t going to get it overnight. Persistence and patience happens in both gymnastics and engineering.”

Wang is interning this summer at her father’s company and has already learned auto cad design. He is taking another group to Nicaragua and Wang is going and will be far more involved than the first trip she took.

“I’m really excited to go back there,” Wang said. “I think [my dad is] flattered. He didn’t push me into this. It was all on my own. It was a self-driven thing to be a straight-A student and major in engineering. I think he is pretty excited.”