It takes a village to train a well-prepared construction manager. At the OHL School of Construction in FIU’s College of Engineering & Computing, that is exactly what students get: the support of faculty, alumni and community members working together to help them achieve success.

“I would definitely say that it’s a big family,” senior Felipe Martinez says. He praises the school’s alumni for providing insider tours of job sites and offering advice on student projects, including one that earned a first-prize finish at a national competition.

Martinez and four other seniors recently took the top honor by beating out 18 other student teams from construction programs around the country. They planned every detail of a hypothetical $15 million medical center for the city of Boca Raton, which included cost and time estimates, a project management plan and safety and quality-control programs. And while each student did his own work by taking on one aspect of the project, the availability of experts willing to provide constructive criticism proved invaluable.

“We developed it, we corrected it and we shared it with them to get comments and feedback,” says senior Jose Urdaneta of the 100-page work binder that the group submitted as its entry. Urdaneta turned to individuals whom he had met through the FIU chapter of the national organization Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), the student counterpart of the local professional chapter. The link between the two groups gives young people the chance to meet those already working in the field, including at international firms such as Facchina, Coastal and Skanska. It gave Urdaneta access to people who could help boost his career.

“For me, it has been critical,” says Urdaneta, who served as the safety engineer on the competition project. “My involvement with the chapter has made me realize how important connections are and has actually improved my potential as a professional. You are getting exposure to the construction industry. You get to know the major players. People do not get these types of opportunities by themselves.”

Case in point: It was at the chapter’s holiday networking event in 2013 that Urdaneta met Miguel Lopez Jr., founder and principal of a local construction engineering firm. When Urdaneta mentioned having just completed a course in construction safety—which qualified him for an OSHA certification—Lopez said his company could use someone with his skills and quickly offered the younger man an internship. Urdaneta wound up working on the site safety plan for a construction project that went on to earn Lopez’s company a professional award. Contributing to that success led to a spot on the student-competition team.

Preparation for the competition took two months, with each member putting in as many as 30 hours per week on his particular area. Having made the final cut, the team spent two days at the competition, on the first day refining its work based on the judges’ request for last-minute revisions—a premeditated nod to the kinds of demands that clients typically make—and then giving a 10-minute presentation. The students would not have excelled, Martinez says, without the guidance of professors Ayman Morad and Jose Faria. “They definitely went above and beyond,” he says of the suggestions and motivation the pair offered.

“I see this competition as good for pushing students to excel,” Morad says. That’s part of my job. I’m also preparing them to excel in their work in the future.” Notably, Morad has organized the annual team for the last four years, and in that time his students have earned two overall second places and, now, a second overall first place.

And while he says he is typical of the passionate faculty who teach at the school, he believes that for students to succeed in general, bringing in the community element is critical. Unlike chemistry or physics, Morad explains, “The discipline is experiential. Hands-on is very important.” To that end, the school’s administration maintains strong ties with industry and relies on the input of an advisory board comprising South Florida professionals committed to offering financial and other support. And Morad adds, “In South Florida, many of the company executives or owners are graduates of FIU, and they like to give back.”

Martinez says that he himself is the perfect example of all that the school makes available to students, which also includes high-level internships and job possibilities through career fairs that attract top recruiters. In 2013 he landed one of the two OHL internships earmarked for FIU students in the firm’s Madrid headquarters.

“It was incredible in the sense of getting that global experience,” Martinez says of working for OHL, which has dozens of branches throughout the world and for which the school was named in 2012 in recognition of a financial contribution. Martinez followed that with an internship at a local company.

Excited about their latest victory, the students have little time to bask in the glory. Urdaneta, a year away from graduation, earlier this month had two job interviews, which he says came directly as a result of the competition. Martinez works part time as an estimator for a subcontractor while also looking to finish up next year in December. Of their collective triumph, he says, “Personally, it’s very gratifying to win. I am very grateful that I could contribute to getting some sort of recognition for the school.”