Dwayne Perry building on family legacy in UMSL/WUSTL Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program

by | Mar 4, 2024

The civil engineering major is on track to earn his degree and launch his career 10 years after his mother graduated from the program.
Dwayne Perry sits with his mother, Bridget Perry, standing behind him with her hand on his right shoulder

Dwayne Perry has been following in the footsteps of his mother, Bridget Spillers, as he pursues his degree in the UMSL/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program. Perry is on track to graduate with his bachelor’s in civil engineering this semester and has a job lined up at CBB Transportation Engineers + Planners. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Dwayne Perry only has a couple more months left before he’ll walk across the commencement stage at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

Perry isn’t gazing at that fast-approaching milestone with the same trepidation that a lot of college students feel about their futures. He’s already gotten a head start launching his career with the help of the UMSL/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program.

The civil engineering major has been working as a transportation design trainee at CBB Transportation Engineers + Planners since January 2023 and expects to shift into a full-time role with the firm after graduation.

“I graduated high school in 2016, so it’s definitely been a long time coming,” Perry said. “But I’m excited.”

The joint engineering program is set to celebrate 30 years helping prepare future engineers such as Perry for successful careers on Thursday evening at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.

The structure of the program helps students gain valuable experience before they hit the job market. They pay UMSL tuition and spend their first two years taking pre-engineering and general education courses at the university before transitioning to the Washington University campus to complete their upper-level engineering courses. Those courses are all held in the afternoons and evenings, allowing students the flexibility to take advantage of internships and co-op positions.

Perry saw firsthand the success his mother, Bridget Spillers, had going through the program a decade before him.

Spillers had already spent more than a decade working as an engineering field rep at Ameren when she enrolled at UMSL after completing an associate degree in engineering at St. Louis Community College. She knew she needed to earn her bachelor’s to enhance her earning potential with the company and unlock new opportunities for career advancement.

The joint engineering program proved a cost-effective option and also allowed her needed flexibility to complete her degree. At the time, she was a single mother raising Perry and caring for her aging father.

“It was big, being able to go in the evening and set my schedule to where I could take maybe two classes this semester if I had something going on, three the next if I felt that I could achieve that, just based on what was going on in my life at the time,” said Spillers, who now works as an electrical engineer with Ameren’s Distribution Substation Design Group. “Dwayne was a big helper in that area because he would do a lot with my father to take that load off of me.”

She also credits her faith for helping her succeed.

Perry remembers what she went through, juggling work, school and home responsibilities. The two even had some conversations about the things Spillers was learning about in her courses.

Spillers already had an inkling her son might choose to pursue engineering as a career. All the signs were there from an early age.

He was 3 or 4 years old when he made a book in preschool sharing all the things he wanted to be when he grew up – things like inventor, astronaut and engineer. His favorite toys were his LEGOs. He loved building things with them and always wanted to participate in experiments when given the opportunity. When he got into school, he always displayed strong mathematical skills.

Perry was also driven and career-focused, so when he graduated from McCluer North High School in 2016, he went right into a job training program at Boeing.

“I was 17, and I was, I think, the youngest person ever to go through their pre-employment training program,” he said. “They actually had to pause the class to go verify and make sure that I could go through the program at 17.”

He wound up getting a full-time position as an assembly mechanic, putting together the wing on the F/A-18. It was a job that piqued his interest in mechanical and aerospace engineering and gave him early exposure to life in the workforce alongside much older peers.

Meanwhile, he was taking classes and working toward his associate degree at St. Louis Community College.

Spillers encouraged him to consider the joint engineering program to continue his education, just as she’d recommended it to several of her colleagues over the years.

“If you want to remain in the St. Louis area and get a good value for education, you really can’t beat it,” she said. “Just the fact that he could pair real-world experience with the program and get it from both sides and marry them together into a complete, well-rounded education, and I knew he would have people there that would help him if he needed it.”

Perry has never once regretted listening to his mother’s advice since choosing the UMSL program.

“It’s been way better than I could have imagined,” Perry said. “Every one of the staff, every member of the faculty is super supportive. They want to help us as much as we want to help ourselves. It’s been great.”

His interests have shifted away from mechanical to civil engineering since he started the program, leading him to seek the opportunity with CBB, which handles all aspects of transportation engineering – from traffic impact studies and traffic safety to planning and design. Perry has specifically worked in roadway geometric design, helping craft plans for everything from roundabouts to trails, walking paths and sidewalks, taking care to account for slope, water runoff and drainage.

Shawn Leight, an adjunct instructor in the joint engineering program, serves as the vice president and chief operating officer at CBB and extended him the offer.

Getting to work with the firm while going to school has impacted his education.

“It’s definitely enabled me to understand more of what we’re learning and the different aspects that go into it,” Perry said. “It’s also increased my passion.”

Perry’s taken advantage of opportunities outside the classroom to share that passion. He was one of three UMSL students working with program director Gary Moore last year to help restore historic Greenwood Cemetery, including designing a paved roadway to help alleviate flooding and water runoff.

He has also helped tutor fellow students in the joint engineering program and participated in recruiting events, passing on what he loves about the program and profession.

Perry, who got married last March, plans to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture in the future, but he’d like to take at least a year off from school, giving him and his wife some time to travel while they fully acclimate to the working world.

Spillers hopes others will follow the path she and Perry have taken through the UMSL program.

“From my own experience at my employer, I see that we have a real need to increase diversity among the ranks of engineers,” Spillers said. “My son and I are proof we can accomplish that through this program.”

As for her son, Spillers can’t help beaming when talking about all that he’s already accomplished.

“I am proud beyond measure,” she said. “I really cannot put it into words. I’m so impressed with him. He’s held true to himself, what he’s really interested in. He pursued it not just as a course of study but with passion. He really loves what he does. It’s so exciting to see. For such a young person, he has such drive, and I’m just proud.”

This year marks 30 years of the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Washington University in St. Louis working together to turn today’s students into tomorrow’s engineers, shaping some of the city’s brightest minds into innovators for the future. Please join alumni and friends of the program this Thursday, March 7, to celebrate the power of engineering and alumni success. Learn more about this exciting event at giving.umsl.edu.

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik