Civil engineering is often called the oldest engineering discipline, as humans have been building roads, bridges, and water ducts for thousands of years. These kinds of infrastructure projects are ones that civil engineers still work on today. The profession is also expected to expand by 8 percent in the next 10 years, as increasing urbanization and an interest in renewable-energy create new projects for civil engineers.
Given the makeup of the field, that raises big social questions. Engineering is the STEM sector where the struggle for female representation is the most pronounced: According to statistics compiled by the Society of Women Engineers, only 12 percent of engineers are female. Further, more than half of the female freshman who sign up to major in engineering end up switching to non-STEM majors by graduation.
Eileen Velez-Vega is a civil engineer based in Puerto Rico. Velez-Vega has been enthusiastic about aviation and space since a young age, and she’s the first in her family to become an engineer. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Velez-Vega about her experience as a female engineer, her work in constructing airport runways, the economic situation in Puerto Rico, and how surviving cancer affected her work priorities. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bourree Lam: What do you do as a civil engineer and how long you've been doing it?
Eileen Velez-Vega: Right now, I have a new position as an assistant vice-president at Kimley-Horn, a consulting firm in the U.S., where I helped [them] open an office in Puerto Rico in 2010. I was an aviation project manager for the company in West Palm Beach, Florida, where I worked on aviation projects at different commercial and general-aviation airports, so small and big airports.
I'm from Puerto Rico, and as soon as I got to the company in 2006, I asked my supervisor if I could work in Puerto Rico. His answer was, "If you get us a project in Puerto Rico, we'll go there." It took me from 2006 until 2010 to actually get that to happen. I went from being an aviation project manager, and just working in aviation, to actually running a whole office for the company. Anything that we do as far as civil engineering consulting became my expertise—including aviation, bridgework, and land development—so I had to become a very well-rounded engineer pretty quickly.
My workflow now consists of managing the office, and doing technical work on aviation and private projects. It's definitely a lot more challenging than what my job used to be. I was good at aviation, design, and airports, but leading an office on an island where things are very different has been pretty amazing. Everybody knows that, right now, the economy in Puerto Rico is going through hard times. It’s on the news, so that's part of the challenge.
Lam: How did you get into civil engineering as a career?
Velez-Vega: I was always very good at math and science when I was younger. I attended several math and science camps; I went to space camp at NASA. I always knew I wanted to do something related to airports, NASA, or space. As I went through high school and did a lot of these self-assessments—where they give you tests on what you're really good at—and civil engineering made sense. I wanted to do projects that benefit society: building structures, buildings, and communities.
When I was younger, my mom told me all about wanting to be a stewardess for Pan Am. I think hearing so much about it when I was little got me curious. I fell in love with the idea of being an astronaut in the 7th grade. I was always reading about NASA, and collecting posters of astronauts. When I went to college, I actually did a two-year internship at NASA, so I did get to work there. It was amazing.
I started working with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in 2003 after I graduated college. I was working on [runway] pavements in airfields, but I was still a civil engineer. That furthered my interest in aviation, so I did that for three years in Mississippi. Then I moved to Florida with Kimley-Horn. For airports, you use all of your civil-engineering knowledge. Aviation is a specialty, but combining both of those areas combined has worked perfectly for me. It's pretty much civil engineering with aviation rules.
Velez-Vega: My mom is a teacher, and my dad is a sales representative. So there were no engineers in my family. When I said I wanted to be an engineer, they were extremely proud and excited, but there were no mentors in my family; I had to do it on my own. I just decided I wanted to do that and I didn't give up. Now, there are younger family members that want to be engineers because they’ve seen me.
I have had amazing mentors throughout the way, very successful women have been coaching me since I started working. Female representation in STEM is getting better. In the 1950s when the Society of Women Engineers was founded, they had a lot of work to do. Now, that work is a little bit easier because these women paved that path for us. People still look at you, like, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” But strong female engineers are not rare anymore; there are a lot more of us out there. Not enough, but there is a good representation.
Lam: Is being a female engineer an important part of your identity?
Velez-Vega: It is. I'm very proud of it. It's funny, this week I went to pick up a permit for a project. I'm the lead engineer, and the lady in the permitting office looked at me and said, "Do you have authorization from the engineer to come and pick this up?" I told her, "Yes, Engineer Velez-Vega, that is me." She was so surprised and her face was like, "You're the engineer, oh my goodness."
Because of what I look like, it's even harder to break stereotypes when I go into a new project, or when I’m meeting a new client. It's motivating, but it is also very exhausting because you've got to prove yourself over and over again until people get it and say, “okay, she can do this.” I can always feel that little bit of hesitation at the beginning. We have to work harder at getting respected by our colleagues and our clients.
Lam: Do you have hope that this dynamic will improve as your career, and perhaps society, progresses?
Velez-Vega: I hope that it does. Diversity in the workplace is a lot better now. It's never going to be perfect, but it will get better. I'm Hispanic and I'm from Puerto Rico, so sometimes that’s even more rare. It's almost like they just can't believe it, and there's a lot of us out here. When I graduated in civil engineering in Puerto Rico, it was not unusual to see a class that was 50 percent women and 50 percent men. In the U.S., it's very rare, but in Puerto Rico, it happens organically.
Lam: What's a typical day at work like for you?
Velez-Vega: It depends on which project I'm working on. This week, I get into the office and we pick up all the equipment. We're doing visual-condition assessments on all the pavements of the airport, so those inspections take up my whole day.
When we have projects that are going into construction, I work in the office working on plans, making phone calls to answer client questions and communicate with government agencies to submit permits. A lot of what I do is management, but I do still do a lot of technical work and design.
Lam: How has your work become meaningful, and is being back in Puerto Rico part of that?
Velez-Vega: Puerto Rico has lost a lot of professionals in the last few years. A lot of the American companies have left, so many Puerto Rican professionals—doctors, engineers, lawyers—have had to leave, and it's very sad.
For me, coming back to Puerto Rico in such a difficult time for the island was a big accomplishment. I didn't think I would come back until I retired, so working on the island now is extremely important to me. I felt like I was coming back to give back to the island. There’s a lot to be done in Puerto Rico as far as infrastructure, and it's difficult when the news is so bad and money is limited. A lot of projects don't happen, a lot of things get delayed, and you get discouraged. But there is a saying here: "I'm not giving up." It’s a slogan now, so that people will fight a little bit harder to stay on the island.
The best part [about civil engineering] is seeing your name on a project that actually gets built. The first time that I saw my name on a permit board in front of a restaurant that was being built, my mom went and took pictures of it. She was so excited that the sign said “Engineer Velez-Vega” with my license next to it. I'm doing things that affect people on a daily basis. I build airports, or at least I make sure that the pavement is good and that planes can actually land on the runway. That's important, and it affects people's lives directly. They might not really think about it—people usually worry about the plane—but you have to be able to land it somewhere. My daughter will see that and be like, "My mom did that." She's going to feel proud, and she's going to know that women can achieve great things. Civil engineering is all related to society: If we don't design the drainage well, it will flood and people are going to get really upset. If I do it right, nobody notices; but if we do it wrong, everybody's going to notice.
Lam: You’re a cancer survivor. Has surviving cancer changed your attitude towards your career at all?
Velez-Vega: If you were to ask me during my treatment, it would be a different question because I just did not want to talk about it. But now, it's been four years and I can't talk about it enough because it went well.
In 2010, when I was five-months pregnant with my daughter, I was diagnosed with stage-four Hodgkin's lymphoma. Everything was put on hold: my career, my projects, everything. I had to give my projects to other people so that they could run them for me. That was hard for me too, because my clients were my clients. So it was hard to say, “Hey, I'm going to have to transition to this other person and I don't know when I'm going to be back.”
You work so hard to build a reputation in a practice, and you really don't know how to recover from it. Maternity leave is also something that is still difficult for us women engineers. Coming back from maternity leave and cancer together at the same time was really hard. I was gone for about eight months in 2010. When I came back to work, other people had my projects so it was hard for me to say, “I'm back, give the project back.” You can't do that.
It changed my attitude towards everything: my priorities, my work, and life. I was diagnosed with cancer again in February of 2012. Combined, I was gone from work for almost two years from 2010 to 2013. That changed the speed of my career path. I was on a very fast track in the company and I was very happy with my progress, so when all this happened, I had to take a humongous break. Things don't happen that way we want sometimes. I was in control of everything, and all of a sudden I had no control. My body was not the same; my strength and attitude were not the same. I'm still ambitious and I want to be successful, but not at the cost of leaving my family for a long time. Before, I'd go on a work trip for a week and forget about my family. I used to be a workaholic, but [after the second diagnosis] I changed. I still work long hours and I am very devoted to my job, but I will not kill myself for work anymore.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a NASA engineer, a petroleum engineer, and a wind turbine technician.