Boilermaker Love Story
At Purdue, Brent and Shahara Byford built the foundation for their careers and family
When it came time for Shahara Nixon Byford (BSCE ’01) to look at colleges, she was searching for a school with a strong engineering program and a competitive softball team.
A multisport athlete in high school, Nixon Byford played summer softball with the Orland Park Sparks of Illinois and was part of the team that won the 1996 Class A National Championship.
Though Purdue’s softball team was only entering its third season in the Big Ten, the University’s reputation for a world-class engineering education appealed to Nixon Byford. After a campus visit that affirmed Purdue’s focus on balancing athletics with academics, she knew she was meant to be a Boilermaker.
“At Purdue, everyone in the athletic department reminded us we were student-athletes in that order,” Nixon Byford said. “They were very much committed to making sure I was going to succeed in engineering as well as on the softball diamond. And that support is a huge part of my success today.”
Nixon Byford had aptitude in math and science, but she wasn’t certain which field of engineering she wanted to pursue. The opportunity to gain experience in different disciplines through internships led her to a degree in civil engineering.
“I worked in a different internship each summer,” she said. “It was a wonderful opportunity to explore different careers and find one that would be a great fit for me.”
Civil From the Start
In contrast, Brent Byford (BSCE ’01) knew he wanted to major in civil engineering before he applied to Purdue. Byford, who hails from Indiana, has brothers who work in construction. He’d taken engineering and architecture classes in high school, job shadowed a land surveyor and worked as a roofer. He was interested in attending a large school and after touring a few different schools, Purdue felt like the right fit.
Now married for 19 years, the story of how the couple met varies depending on who you ask. Brent Byford remembers noticing his future wife in some of the large engineering lectures freshman year.
“There weren’t a whole lot of women to begin with,” Byford said. “And Shahara walks in with bags of ice on her knees and sits down at the front of the class.”
They both agree they didn’t start to get to know one another until they pledged Chi Epsilon together. It wasn’t until they were assigned to a group project in CE 454 as fifth-year seniors that the couple began dating. Following graduation, they moved to Chicago to begin their careers in the construction industry.
Brent and Shahara Byford with their children, Kenzie, Parker and Brayden.
Nixon Byford joined Pepper Construction, a company she interviewed with at the campus career fair. One of her first jobs involved changing air handlers on the roof of the Chicago Art Institute alongside fellow Boilermaker Jim Hill (BSMET ’95), president of the Hill Group, one of the largest specialty contractors in Illinois.
“I’ll never forget being up on that roof with another Purdue grad,” Nixon Byford said. “I’ve worked with the Hill Group quite a bit over the years. There is such a great Purdue network in the Chicago area.”
It was while Nixon Byford was at Pepper that the company’s executives encouraged her to consider a transition to human resources where her operational experience would be a huge asset. She earned a Master of Science in Human Resource Management from Roosevelt University and is now vice president of human resources for Power Construction.
Brent Byford works for the Keller Group, a global geotechnical construction firm. He credits his undergraduate co-op experiences with guiding his career trajectory.
“I co-oped for three semesters as a structural engineer,” he said. “And I realized pretty quickly that it was definitely not the path for me. My roommate and I went down to Texas for a summer internship with Walsh Construction and I loved everything about it. I knew then that my future was in construction.”
The couple has remained involved at Purdue, visiting campus with their three children, guest lecturing in classes together and donating to support civil engineering and the softball team.
“We’ve had enough good fortune that we’re in a position to give back,” Byford said. “It’s fun to be back in the classroom and meet the current students. I know that some of them come from backgrounds similar to mine, where if it weren’t for companies giving us a chance, we might not have the same opportunities. So it’s extremely important to us that we play a role in providing that access and those opportunities.”
And who knows how many of today’s students might leave with more than their education.
“There is such a sense of pride that goes with earning a Purdue degree,” Nixon Byford said. “I’m eternally grateful for everything Purdue has done for my career. And I got to meet my husband there, too. So that’s a huge bonus.”