This issue’s student spotlight is Burns graduate student Melanie Leas Von Eschen. Melanie came to Burns because she wanted to round out her education and experience in the construction industry. She ended up with a leadership role in a Colorado ski town, and won a sustainability and green building award at a national conference, all while pursuing a master’s degree at DU.

Melanie Leas Von Eschen 2

Can you share your journey to grad school? 

After completing my undergraduate studies at the University of South Carolina, I embarked on what I thought would be a temporary ski season adventure in Breckenridge, Colorado. However, fate had different plans, leading me into the realm of residential construction. Initially hired as a construction coordinator for a local contractor, I quickly realized that my career path wouldn’t be conventional. Unlike many of my colleagues, I lacked the on-site experience, particularly in comparison to my male counterparts. Determined to carve out my own path, I dedicated four years to mastering the ins and outs of the industry, steadily climbing the ranks at my first job.

Despite my advancement, I reached a point where I felt limited in my growth potential as a project manager. It was then that I made the pivotal decision to transition to a smaller company, where I had the opportunity to work closely with the owner as a project manager. In this role, I oversaw the completion of several high-end residential projects each year, ranging from $2 to $17 million in value. This experience exposed me to the intricacies of the custom home building process, where every project presented unique challenges, particularly in managing diverse client personalities. From classic ski homes to historic remodels and even a Swiss chalet imported from overseas, I relished the opportunity to tackle unconventional projects that pushed the boundaries of my expertise.

While I remain grateful to my former boss for the invaluable experience and opportunities he provided, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to explore in my career. When the opportunity arose to join the Town of Breckenridge in a construction and development role focused on workforce housing, I knew it was the next step I needed to take. In this position, I oversee the entire lifecycle of development projects, from initial feasibility assessments and planning to entitlements, construction, and occupancy.

What brought you to Daniels and the Burns School? 

Transitioning to a more office-focused role with the town gave me the opportunity to reflect on advancing my academic journey. Juggling full-time work, I researched graduate programs with online platforms. Despite being accepted into two programs, I hesitated, unsure if returning to school was the right choice.

However, after a tour of the DU campus and a visit to the Burns School’s Collaboratory with Professor Eric Holt, I knew that the Real Estate and the Built Environment program would provide my opportunities that I was not even aware of. This insight solidified my decision, that pursuing this academic path would indeed change my life and open doors that were previously beyond my reach. 

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

Between my first two jobs in Breckenridge I worked as framer to gain additional onsite knowledge I was lacking. I spent that summer moving lumber and cleaning up sites, gradually progressing to making cuts and laying out walls and roofs. This hands on experience proved invaluable, providing me with a comprehensive understanding of every facet of the construction industry. It wasn’t about mastering the specific skillset, it was about gaining insight into the complexities and challenges in on-site work. This foundational knowledge has been instrumental in shaping my career trajectory with a well-rounded perspective and a deep appreciation for every aspect of the construction process. 

What has been your greatest challenge and lessons learned? 

One of the most significant challenges I faced in my career was undertaking the construction of my parents’ dream home in Breckenridge. With my father’s background as a cabinet maker and home builder, and my mother’s expertise as an interior designer, they brought a wealth of combined construction knowledge spanning 80 years, compared to my eight years of experience at the time. Over the course of 18 demanding months, we navigated through a multitude of challenges together. While the project tested my skills and resolve, it also proved to be incredibly rewarding. It served as a wonderful lesson that expertise is not measured solely by years of experience, but also by the willingness to learn and adapt. 

What did your recent Sustainability and Green Building Scholarship from NAHB mean to you and your future?

Being selected by the National Association of Home Builders for the Young Green Builder Award was a wonderful honor, allowing me to attend the Builder’s Show and gain additional green certifications. The highlight of my experience at the 2024 IBS was the opportunity to connect with fellow professionals who share my passion for improving and streamlining housing development. It was inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded individuals with a collective goal of advancing the industry towards greater efficiency and excellence in building. 

Melanie Leas Von Eschen

How does a REBE degree fit into your life’s plans? 

The REBE degree has enhanced my expertise in development projects, offering insights into real world challenges. Working alongside professors at DU, I’ve gained invaluable guidance in refining and improving project outcomes. The program has deepened my understanding of various aspects of real estate and development, enabling me to approach projects with a more informed perspective.  

What do you like to do in your free time? 

Embracing the Summit County lifestyle, you’ll often find me enjoying the snowy slopes with my husband and Bernese Mountain Dog during winter and soaking up the sun on the lake during summer. Whether skiing down the slopes or surfing across the water, these outdoor activities reflect my passion for adventure and nature.