I’m Carla Kleynhans, an engineer from South Africa. I work for a transportation engineering firm called Innovative Transport Solutions (ITS), where I’ve been for four years since obtaining a Civil Engineering degree from the University of Stellenbosch. Between August 2022 and May 2023, I worked in Kittelson’s Portland, Oregon office on an international exchange.

So, how did it come about that a South African transportation engineer found herself in Portland for nine months? The story starts with the relationship built between Wayne Kittelson and Christoff Krogscheepers of ITS. Wayne and Christoff met at a conference in Copenhagen in the late 1990s. Shortly thereafter, Wayne and Mark Vandehey (former Kittelson CEO) traveled to South Africa, where they met Hermanus Steyn, who is now a senior principal engineer with Kittelson.

Christoff and Hermanus both came on long exchanges to the US to work with Kittelson. (Hermanus’ was especially long, because he stayed!) Since that time, Kittelson has hosted several other South Africans on shorter exchanges. In November 2021, I mentioned to Christoff that I wanted to come to the US on an exchange, and that’s where my journey began.

What Was It Like to Be on an International Exchange?

Through many conversations between ITS and Kittelson, we determined there was an opening in the Portland office for me and that Chris Brehmer and Kristine Connolly would be my onboarding team. In February 2022, we started the visa process and a month later I received my signed paperwork. In May 2022 I had my visa interview, and my visa was approved.

I arrived in Portland with my husband, Lourens, in August 2022 and jumped right into full-time work at Kittelson. Over the past nine months, I’ve had the chance to work on development services projects such as traffic impact studies, lighting design, and planning projects. Through these projects, I’ve learned new software, improved my operations knowledge, learned how to read signal timing sheets, improved my design skills, tried my hand at lighting design, learned about all the challenges during the construction phase of a project, and much more.

A particular project that I learned a lot from was a lighting design project for the City of Pasco. The City added road links and widened existing road facilities, thus requiring new lighting on the new road links and additional lighting where widening occurred. I am new to design and especially new to lighting design. I learned a lot of new techniques in AutoCAD and got to work with AGI, which was a new software to me. Doing design projects was important for me during this exchange, as I require that type of experience to obtain my professional registration in South Africa.

Carla presents at the "Envisioning Tomorrow" session at the Northwest Region Retreat.

Many people have asked me about the differences between working on transportation projects in South Africa and the US. Well, we use the metric system and drive on the left side of the road! We also have our own versions of guidebooks, such as the South African Road Traffic Signs Manual (SARTSM) instead of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), and the Committee of Transport Officials (COTO) South African Trip Data Manual instead of the ITE Trip Generation Manual. However, I would say there are far more similarities than there are differences. We also use the Highway Capacity Manual and the Green Book, and use Vistro, AutoCAD, and Civil 3D. I didn’t notice a big work culture difference between ITS and Kittelson. Like Kittelson, ITS offers flexible work hours and locations but encourages in-person interaction when possible. All of our work is in English, with just a few terminology differences.

6 Takeaways From My Exchange

As I look back on a wonderful exchange, here’s what I would offer anyone considering a similar opportunity:

  • Plan ahead! I recommend at least six months to figure out logistics (though even more time is helpful in case you run into any hiccups). Among other considerations, I needed to think about: how long would I like to be in the US? What visa is required? What will it cost to get and stay there? What is the exchange rate? What will happen with our expenses at home? Do we need to rent a vehicle or how will we travel in the US? How will taxes work? As you get further into planning, more questions come up that you might not have thought about initially.
  • Set clear goals. Having a clear idea of what you want to come back with, this will help you structure and prioritize your time on the exchange. My goals heading into my exchange were to learn more about the transportation industry from a developed country, gain more experience in different transportation fields, experience how a different company operates, build connections and expand my network, and experience and see the US.
  • Be flexible. I was originally slated to start at the beginning of June, but Lourens could only get a visa appointment for the end of July. We decided to postpone my starting date by two months. Lourens’ visa interview was July 28th, after which he received his approved visa. We then immediately had to book flights as my starting date at Kittelson was August 15th and we needed to find accommodation. We booked flights for August 4th, giving us less than a week to pack and prepare for nine months. It was a rollercoaster, to say the least! The details of an international exchange can be complicated, so be prepared to adjust your plans along the way.
  • Say yes to opportunities. The months go by quickly, so get out of your comfort zone right away. I said yes to the invitation to attend a number of events, including the ITE Traffic Bowl, a WTS Gala and luncheons, Kittelson’s Northwest Region retreat, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting, and the SPARK Summit, a professional development event for Kittelson staff. I also partook in as many office activities as I could, such as the fall walking/biking challenge, a ski trip, World Cup match viewings in the conference room, and construction site visits. All of these events helped me plug in quickly and make the most of my exchange.
Group of Kittelson & Associates staff accepting award for WTS Portland Employer of the Year

WTS Portland gala and award reception

Group of Kittelson & Associates staff at TRB 2023 Annual Meeting

2023 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting

  • Prioritize connections. I learned a lot from the many projects I’ve worked on at Kittelson, but the most valuable thing I am bringing home with me is the connections I have made. Several of these connections have led to friendships that I plan to continue after I return home. Take the time to grab lunch with your colleagues or stay for a happy hour-those investments are just as important as the time you spend on projects!
  • Build in time for personal travel! My husband and I wanted to see as much of the US as we could, and I’d say we’ve accomplished that-we have been to Seattle, Boston, New York, Bend, Mount Rainier, DC, Phoenix, Grand Canyon and Las Vegas so far, and will also be touring California and stopping in Hawaii on our way back home. An exchange is about more than work; don’t forget to play a little too!

Thank you to everyone who made my exchange the experience that it was-my onboarding team, project teams, the staff who took me out to lunch, the HR specialists who helped me work through the visa process-and to my ITS colleagues for holding down the fort back home. You all made the exchange a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the lessons, connections, and stories will stay with me for a very long time.