Hunter Halten, Nearly Fluent in Spanish, Aimed for International Development Career

Hunter HaltenBefore enrolling at Duke as a freshman four years ago, Hunter Halten--a graduating senior in civil and environmental engineering--had never been outside of the country. But, after a semester spent studying in Spain and a summer spent working in London, the native of California’s wine country is setting out for a career in international development.

He is debating between entering the Peace Corps, ideally in a Latin American country, and jumping right into a job with a firm specializing in international work.

Halten has given himself a particular advantage toward realizing his goals. As a “parallel track” to his engineering studies, he studied Spanish and Latin American culture. After eight years of experience with Spanish, Halten describes himself as almost fluent.

“I can say anything I want, it just takes more concentration,” he said.

“In this country, technical fields and languages don’t usually go together,” Halten added. “But, the two tracks have been a wonderful complement.”

He is intent on spending time in Latin America–— a place he has studied but never seen–— but would be willing to work “wherever,” noting the emerging markets in places like Dubai, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and China.

Halten’s interest in civil engineering got its start in high school. His mother worked in a civil engineering office, giving him some exposure to the industry and leaving him fascinated by building and urban systems.

“I wasn’t as interested in the technical aspects, as the end result,” Halten said. “I love the idea that when you are done with your work, people make use of a piece of you that is left behind–— that will be there when you are gone.”

He came to Duke because it “just felt right,” offering a good engineering program without being a strictly technical school. He also relished the challenge presented by moving far from his northern California hometown.

“I think I’ve benefited incredibly at Duke,” Halten said. “I’ve had the chance to go abroad–— giving me a completely new perspective on what I could do.”

Staying on track with his engineering courses and taking the semester in Madrid was a challenge requiring considerable planning, Halten said. “As far as my engineering major, it was like taking a semester off,” he said. Instead of technical courses, his time there was spent taking Spanish literature, language and history.

Halten returned to Duke with a “new take on things” and quickly got involved with the International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience (IAESTE), an emerging student group on campus. IAESTE is an international network that coordinates on-the-job training and internships for students in technical and scientific fields.

“For every job or internship we raise on campus, we’re guaranteed to send one student abroad,” Halten said. The club has been slow to catch on simply because of the vast number of opportunities already on campus, but is a “goldmine” for those involved, he said. Participants in the group have traveled to such far-flung places as Germany, Croatia and Iceland.

IAESTE landed him back in Europe last summer, working with the Swedish construction company SKANSKA in London. There, he contributed to hospital projects–— both building new hospitals and retrofitting older ones, he said. He spent most of his time working on a project to refresh the aging infrastructure at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in Central London.

As for other highlights, Halten notes his contributions to the Duke SmartHouse, a live in research laboratory to be operated by Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.

Halten spent one summer working with a team on the “architectural theory” of the house. He then enrolled in the SmartHouse class, where he worked on a 3-person sound-proofing and acoustics team. Their aim was to develop a sound-proof media room in which you could have essentially any level of noise without being heard outside.

“I’m not an expert in sound-proofing, but that wasn’t the point, we got our hands on research and the experience of practical application,” Halten said. “We learned a lot about how sound-proof panels work, but more importantly how to pull together and manage a project.

“We also learned how to communicate well--take findings to a group and motivate them to stay with you.”

Halten took the experience and moved on to become project manager of the largest extracurricular undergraduate SmartHouse team, working on photovoltaic cells, or solar panels.

“We are working to find ways to maximize the efficiency of solar panels,” he said.

“The panels function best when they are cool,” Halten explained. “We are working on a system to run water through the panel. That would cool the panel as it is heated by the sun, and heat water that could be stored for later use.”

The team submitted a second project–— a solar tracker that would maximize efficiency by following the sun in its path–— to the SmartHouse class for development last spring. Students entered their design in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s contest, known as P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Competition in May.