A native of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Cheryl Cunningham loved building with Lincoln logs, working puzzles, and being outdoors as a child. Her favorite subject in school was math.
When she was a junior in high school, a counselor told her that if she were male, she would recommend engineering as a career path. That was all Cunningham needed to hear. Since Purdue was just up the road, and Rose Hulman didn't accept female students, she enrolled in Purdue in mechanical engineering. After her first semester, she quickly determined that civil engineering would better suit her love of the outdoors and her penchant for seeing things built.
After graduation, Cunningham took a job with Bechtel, first working on construction of a nuclear power plant in San Onofre, California, and then a plant in Palo Verde, Arizona. With nuclear power on the wane, however, Cunningham transferred to engineering firm Coneway & Associate in Austin, Texas, becoming an expert in drainage, hydraulics, hydrology, and site plan engineering.
Cunningham missed the southern California sun, so she moved back and applied her drainage and site plan expertise in two larger consulting firms, Rick Engineering and RANPAC Engineering Corporation. Becoming skilled in environmental permitting, she served on the NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) Construction permit task force for California.
During the late 80s, as southern California's economy declined, Cunningham decided to find a more stable economic situation. In 1992, she moved back to Indiana, taking a job with Parsons & Shartle Engineers, Inc., founded by Chet Parsons in 1986.
In 1994, Cunningham became president of the firm, which was renamed Parsons Cunningham & Shartle Engineers, Inc. She became majority owner in 1997, and the firm became certified as a Woman Business Enterprise (WBE). Now one of the largest civil engineering and surveying WBE firms in Indiana, it serves both the private and public sectors. Currently, all engineering staff members are Purdue graduates.
Cunningham shares the CE honor with her partner, best friend, and husband, Chet Parsons (BSCE '74). She has two sons, Benjamin and Kaelan, and two stepsons, Matt and Nick. She serves on the Civil Engineering Advisory Committee and the ACEC Diversity Committee, and is a member of Vistage International. She and her husband are members of the John Purdue Club and lifetime members of the President's Council and the Purdue Alumni Association.