How Saint Mary’s Redefines Engineering

Their bikes have logged hundreds of miles; their travel time is down pat. They know how to keep the cold rides bearable and to navigate with crushingly heavy backpacks. For the past three years, Natalia Luna ’24 and Alexandra Castronovo ’24 have taken part in a demanding schedule of classes split between Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame; their bicycles always nearby.Alex and Natalia

Now, as they prepare to graduate from Saint Mary’s and enter their fifth year in the Dual Degree Engineering program, things will only ramp up. Still, the pair wouldn’t have it any other way.

Luna and Castronovo will join seven other STEM students who will receive their bachelor’s degrees from SMC on May 18. They will then return to the tri-campus in the fall to take their final year of studies at Notre Dame, earning their second bachelor’s degree in May 2025. 

In the meantime, both students have landed their dream internships to carry them through the summer months: Luna will work at General Motors at its Factory Zero EV assembly plant, and Castronovo will work at the Baltimore office of WSP, a global engineering consulting firm. All credit, they say, is due to the collaboration between the two schools and the connections they’ve made. 

The 4+1 Dual Degree program has been in its current form since 2006. There are 80 second- through fifth-year Saint Mary’s students currently enrolled in the program, taking courses at the College in their chosen STEM field, as well as their chosen engineering track at ND. It works like this: first-year students take all their coursework at SMC. In years two through four, they split their time between campuses, the commitments increasing with each passing semester, until their fifth and final year, when they are solely at Notre Dame. 

It’s a tough schedule, but the allure of leaving college with two bachelor’s degrees is exactly what drew Luna to Saint Mary’s. As a high school student looking for engineering programs, Saint Mary’s wasn’t on her radar at first. But, what was on her checklist was a prestigious school where she would have a high probability of employment right out of college—and be in a marching band.

“There were a few technical schools near me in Detroit that had excellent engineering programs, but none of them had the marching band community that I was looking for,” Luna said. Her dad encouraged her to apply to Saint Mary’s because he’d heard of the 4+1 program, “and we knew Notre Dame’s marching band was exactly what I was looking for.” 

Luna’s experience isn’t atypical. Students regularly report they chose the Saint Mary’s Dual Degree pathway because they look forward to a great education, a deep pool of alumnae connections that will help them in their job hunt, and a rich extracurricular experience. Each year, the College hosts STEM “preview” days where faculty and alumnae woo prospective students with the opportunities that can be found at Saint Mary’s. Last year alone, 64% of the high school seniors who attended last year’s STEM Preview Day committed to Saint Mary’s.AlexandNatalia

Employers pay attention to Saint Mary’s students as well. Engineering program director Toni Barstis says it is not uncommon for companies to seek out SMC students when they are recruiting in the area. Ford Motor Company, for example, recently hired Anne Howard ’24 as a summer intern on the recommendation of alumna Lauren McGovern ’20, who works there. 

“The Ford team was really impressed with our students,” Barstis said. “They even donated $1,000 to the Engineering program so they could continue to work with us.”

This is the second summer Luna will be with GM. This year, she’ll be a quality engineer on the plant floor. She said, “I know what helped me a lot in getting the first internship, and then this year’s, is the combination of the mechanical engineering and math courses that I’ve had. Because I had experience looking at data sets both in mechanical engineering and the new ways I knew how to work with data from my math classes here at Saint Mary’s, that really helped me be more confident in working with stuff that I had never done before.”

Castronovo’s environmental and civil engineering program at Notre Dame takes students on a scouting trip each year to show students what jobs could look like in their fields and to network with companies who have internships available. WSP was one such stop last November, when her cohort traveled to New York and New Jersey.


“The connections definitely open doors, but we have to be skilled enough to walk through them,” Castronovo said. “The things that I’ve done in my chemistry classes here at Saint Mary’s and the research experience I have from other internships, gave me skills to take to this new company. I shared with them that I want to take this theoretical knowledge and apply it to the real world.”

The other facet that helps with potential employers is understanding the program’s rigor. Dual Degree students have not just one college degree on their resume, they have two full degrees from two institutions—earned simultaneously.

“In a couple of my interviews, they said, ‘Can you explain what’s going on here?’” Luna says with a laugh. “It actually gives us something to talk about, and then we can explain how it works, the intensity of the program, and how I can fit in extracurriculars.” A member of the Rocketry Club at Notre Dame, a section leader in the Notre Dame Marching Band—she plays tuba—and a competitor in SMC Math competitions, Luna said her interviewers are always impressed. 

“Especially when you explain how you go to your class over here and have 15 minutes to bike all the way to another campus and take classes over there. We can really show how we have to structure our time, manage our homework, and do it at two different places. It shows them that we are committed to doing what it takes to make things work,” Luna said.

Castronovo said the Notre Dame students in her courses there are equally impressed. “Most of the people I talk to in my classes are women students, and their reaction when I tell them about our program is always a bit of shock and respect,” she said. “They are amazed that we commute every day between campuses and will have two bachelor’s degrees when we’re done. I am an equal.” Castronovo is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and says her time in that organization allows her to connect with her classmates, something she looks forward to continuing as they transition to full-time ND students next year. Next year, she’ll be captain of safety and quality control in a competitive club there called Concrete Canoe.

In the meantime, their bikes will be stored over the summer, awaiting Luna and Castronovo’s return in August. Roommates since the day they arrived at Saint Mary’s, both plan to retire from their daily bike rides as they land permanent jobs when they graduate.

“This has 100% been a great experience,” Castronovo said. “This program sets us apart from other engineering students, which is really all we want.”

April 26, 2024



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