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Melissa Ezzell-Maddy is unequivocal about how she ended up in her dream job. She credits her capstone project at University of Maryland University College (UMUC).

Ezzell-Maddy is an environmental health and safety engineer at Lockheed Martin in Colorado. She landed the job immediately after receiving a master’s degree in environmental management from UMUC. The capstone project that wrapped up her final term involved waste management at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Boulder, Colorado.

“I think I got the job because of the success of the capstone,” said Ezzell-Maddy. “It gave me a foothold into Lockheed Martin’s environmental programs and processes.”

Thirteen years ago, Ezzell-Maddy had a very different career plan. She was an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Army, married to another servicemember, and they both planned to remain in the military until retirement. But health problems precluded her from re-enlisting a third time, and an ankle injury dashed her husband’s military aspirations.

“So we moved to Colorado and [my husband] got a job. I dabbled in health care for a bit and worked in security for a little bit,” she said. A security guard job for a Lockheed Martin subcontractor led to another subcontractor position in Lockheed Martin’s mailroom. Then, at age 35, Ezzell-Maddy suddenly decided it was time for a career change.

While earning an undergraduate degree in business from Regis University in Colorado, she had taken—and enjoyed—a few environmental and sustainability courses. As she began eying a graduate degree in environmental management, she said UMUC seemed like the logical training ground.

“UMUC was one of the few universities that offered an environmental management degree,” she said. “Also, I took some UMUC classes in Korea while in the military, so I was familiar with how UMUC worked and I liked what it had to offer.”

She needed, as well, a program that was flexible enough to allow her to continue working in the mailroom. UMUC’s online classes met that goal.

Ezzell-Maddy's capstone project wove together several issues addressed in the UMUC program, including environmental laws and regulations and waste disposal, according to Robert Ouellette, chair of the graduate program in environmental management at UMUC. Ezzell-Maddy said the capstone project streamlined waste disposal processes in the cafeteria at Lockheed Martin’s Boulder facility, making the most of the corporation’s contract with a municipal composting program.

Municipal recycling and composting center, Boulder, Colorado

“Boulder requires [corporate] composting, with the goal by 2025 to have just the smallest percentage of waste go to landfills,” said Ezzell-Maddy. “They require all companies in the city to work toward this goal. I helped [Lockheed Martin] discover ways to make the most of the service… and improved their ‘clean’ scores and put them ahead of the game on compliance.”

Employee education was a big part of the effort.

Joan Berkowitz, the Graduate School adjunct professor who taught the capstone class, said that while the capstone projects give her students real-life experience in problem solving, it’s not common to see such dramatic results as in the capstone led by Ezzell-Maddy.

“During the course of what looked like a fairly routine project, Melissa … looked at compliance, got to talk to other facilities within the Lockheed organization and she got a promotion. So I was very pleased,” Berkowitz said. “The capstone project really improved her management skills.”

Ezzell-Maddy was the only member of the four-person team who lived in Colorado, and her teammates—Angel Harblin, David Blanco and Joshua Floyd—chose her to lead the project. For 12 weeks, the students conducted a waste survey focused on Lockheed Martin’s dining rooms, with an eye on ways to channel more waste away from landfills. The capstone team communicated by email and weekly teleconferencing, working across multiple time zones, with Berkowitz participating as an observer.

“The team developed a comprehensive program, a budget and some resources and tools. They took all their information to the company management, with a strong focus on an employee education program,” Ouellette said. “Environmental awareness, waste reduction and [disposal] compliance were all parts of this successful project.”

Berkowitz gave all four students an A. “I would have given Melissa an A-plus-plus if UMUC allowed that,” she said.

When she enrolled in the UMUC degree program, Ezzell-Maddy wasn’t exactly sure where it would lead her. She juggled her mailroom job, coursework and a family while she studied.

“It was pretty interesting when my stepdaughter was in high school, and I had to haul her to cheer practice,” Ezzell-Maddy recalled. “While she was in cheer practice I’d sit in the stands and do my homework.”

She completed the degree in May 2017, and Lockheed Martin immediately offered her an environmental management job. She said the job resulted from “opportunity and luck.”

“If I hadn’t been in the military, I’d never have been a security guard at the [Lockheed Martin] site,” she said. “If I hadn’t been at the site, I never would have ended up in the mailroom. If I hadn’t had the mailroom job, I wouldn’t have been able to enroll at UMUC.”

However, Ouellette has another perspective on why Ezzell-Maddy rose from a contractor job in the mailroom straight up to a salaried position supporting the facilities management team.

“Ezzell-Maddy and her capstone team solved a real problem,” he said.