US Army Corps of Engineers
Albuquerque District

USACE STEM professionals excel in Afghanistan

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Transatlantic District - North
Published March 22, 2013
April Fitzner, from the Albuquerque District, currently serves as the Afghan National Police (ANP) program manager in the Corps' Transatlantic District - North.

April Fitzner, from the Albuquerque District, currently serves as the Afghan National Police (ANP) program manager in the Corps' Transatlantic District - North.

KABUL, Afghanistan — According to a Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) release, in 1987 Congress declared the entire month of March National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. Members took this action after 14 states had already declared March Women’s History Month.

The goal of the special recognition is to highlight contributions made by women throughout history. This year the commemoration takes on a specific theme, “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).”

DEOMI reports “although women fill close to half of all jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics jobs. This has been the case throughout the past decade, even as college-educated women have increased their share of the overall workforce.” However, efforts to promote STEM have resulted in women with STEM degrees and occupations earning 30 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs, on average.

In fact, without our female USACE Transatlantic District North professionals, mission accomplishment would be sorely hampered. We could not as easily execute our Afghan National Security Force, (ANSF), military construction (MILCON), and select Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) and Afghanistan Infrastructure (AIF) construction projects, or provide necessary oversight of the Operations and Maintenance mission for ANSF facilities in the Regional Command-East (RC-East), Regional Command-North (RC-North), and Regional Command-Capital (RC-Capital) regions of Afghanistan in support of United States Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A) without the talented women who first achieved success in the classroom in pursuit of STEM qualifications.

In alphabetical order, seven of our STEM TAN women professionals include: April Fitzner, program manager; Irene Lee, project manager; Stephanie Hall, Deputy Chief, Engineering and Construction Division; Terri A. Lewis, Budget Analyst; Arianna Raymundo, ANP Project Engineer; Air Force Lt. Col. Yvonne S. Spencer, Deputy District Commander and Amy Yale, project manager.

Fitzner serves TAN as the Afghan National Police (ANP) program manager, nearly one quarter of all USACE work in northern Afghanistan. The Estancia, New Mexico native and New Mexico State University graduate successfully oversees approximately 150 projects worth more than $735 million. Her tight-knit group of project managers turned over 12 projects to the ANP last quarter (100 percent of the planned turnover), no small task for a team that manages on average 40 projects per manager. She joined TAN nine months ago from USACE Albuquerque District after learning about the challenges and opportunities of service here from a former TAN team mate also from Albuquerque District, Bruno Quirici. “I decided that I wanted to be challenged and exposed to different experiences. I also wanted to network with USACE folks from around the world. This is the place to do it,” Fitzner said.

Hall is another TAN leader who seized the opportunity to volunteer for the Afghanistan mission, from her home district in New Orleans. “I wanted to deploy for a while but the timing did not work with my life commitments. When the timing was right, I volunteered,” she said.

As the deputy chief, Engineering and Construction Division, Hall is responsible for supporting the execution of the full spectrum of architectural, engineering, construction management, contract administration and geographic information systems being performed by more than 200 personnel. She grew up in the Missouri towns of Lebanon and Rolla, and New Orleans. Accustomed to travel, Hall attended seven different schools growing up and earned bachelor of sciences degree in civil engineering and economics from the University of Missouri, Rolla.

Why engineering? Her mother, a nurse, told her that if she ever wanted to make a living, “don’t go into a field that is mostly women.” A female high school math teacher validated her mother’s advice and told her that times had really changed in just one lifetime. The teacher told Hall that because the teacher was good in math; her only option was to teach. Since English and writing were not Hall’s fortes, she decided that math, physics and science were here best bets.

Hall earned her economics degree and as a single mother decided to pursue a civil engineering degree. Juggling school, parental duties and work, a professor recommended that she apply to work on a Corps project in New Orleans.

“I was an adult student and my professor asked if I was interested in working with the Corps helping to get the Regional Engineering and Environmental Geographic Information System (REEGIS) working for a big presentation in January. He knew I had the GIS experience because I was working nights putting together the soil maps for the State of Missouri for Department of Natural Resources. The Corps paid better and allowed me to alternate semesters with work and school until I graduated.”

REEGIS is a data dictionary for inland waterways developed by the Mississippi Valley Division for engineering, navigation and flood control structures along the Mississippi River.

Lee is a cornerstone of Fitzner’s ANP program. She manages all ANP projects in TAN’s Shank Area Office area of responsibility.

Lee’s career has trekked through various pathways and featured a variety of positions. After growing up in Michigan, she earned a degree in biology and botany from the University of Michigan. The Corps of Engineers is not Lee’s only corps. She taught elementary school science in the Fiji Islands for the Peace Corps and earned a mechanical engineering degree at Rochester, Mich. upon her return. Her interest in civil engineering began with the Peace Corps. “I did not realize when I was at Fiji Islands that I was practicing civil engineering. I assisted the school in getting some wooden bridges built across creeks.”

Lee’s third corps experience was with the United States Marine Corps in Okinawa, Japan. She’s also worked in four USACE districts; Detroit, Fort Worth, Sacramento and her current home district in San Francisco. She ultimately settled on the Corps of Engineers because she liked the variety of work and the ability to move around within the same agency. Her San Francisco supervisors knew she had experience in both military and civil works and suggested that Lee volunteer to serve in Afghanistan.

Lewis, also a Missouri native is contributing to mission success in Kabul as a budget analyst who has been deployed here since last August. The seasoned USACE veteran has served at Vicksburg, Memphis and New Orleans Districts before joining the Engineering, Research and Design Center in Vicksburg, Miss. Lewis graduated from Ferriday High School and earned a scholarship to Southern University A&M College. Upon receipt of her Bachelor of Science degree in computer science, she taught high school math at her alma mater. During the summer break of her first year she was hired by the Vidalia Area Office, Vicksburg District, and the rest is history. Lewis also earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Alcorn State University.

“It was believed that the Corps of Engineers was the employer of the century and was an honor to help my country even though it was indirectly,” Lewis said of her desire to join the Corps.

It would appear she made the correct choice. Lewis has been recognized as the Department of the Army Intern of the Year and the employee of the quarter during her career.

At TAN she makes forecast decisions and perform analysis which requires reprogramming of resources. Lewis also provides advice and assistance to AED managers in the development of budget request and related documentation and reviews and edits budget requests submitted by program managers.

Raymundo arrived at TAN from her home state of California last August. She is normally a civil engineer working in the geotechnical branch at USACE Sacramento District.

She explained, “I started gaining an interest in deploying after moving on to military projects at Sacramento District. I enjoy the interaction involved between customers and product delivery teams (PDTs) with military construction projects. I decided to deploy for the opportunity to do something different—to be involved in a larger mission. Prior to deploying, I had never travelled overseas. I was waiting for the right time to sign up. I enrolled in California State University Sacramento (CSUS) to obtain a master’s in civil engineering, so I was tied down for 3 years. As soon as I finished my master’s classes, I thought it was now or never. I spoke with my supervisor who was very supportive of my decision and the long-term personal and professional development benefits it would bring.”

Raymundo, who also earned her civil engineering bachelor’s degree from CSUS, a project engineer, is responsible for seven Afghan National Police projects out of Ganberi Resident Office, to include work on the Torkham Gate project on the Pakistan border.

She explained her interest in STEM, “I attended an all-girls private high school; so, going from an all-female educational environment to a male-dominated technical field was a very interesting change. Thankfully I had made a lot of new friends in the engineering program before the fall semester. Prior to starting classes in the fall, I had participated in a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored summer math program through the CSUS MESA Engineering Program (MEP). Growing up I liked math and drawing. As I went through junior high school I thought those two interests added up to architecture. My junior high school softball coach was an engineer and started telling me a little more about the civil engineering field. I also started talking to my father a little more about engineering and construction. My father worked for a demolition/retrofit company in the Bay area and would always tell my brothers and me about all of his projects on the Bay Bridge, piers, stadiums, etc. and about the young engineers he worked with. He would tell us ‘you could be one of those engineers one day.’ My father was always excited about his work, and I wanted to feel that same excitement about my work one day too.”

During college she interned with a few engineering companies. Raymundo also worked for the Sacramento department of Utilities for three years in the development review section. While attending a Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) conference she interviewed for and was accepted to be a summer intern in Charlotte, N.C. for Duke Energy. Ultimately she joined Sacramento District after speaking with USACE representatives at a government career fair at CSUS. Starting as an intern, Raymundo stayed with the Corps in the geotechnical branch/soil design section.

Raymundo will depart TAN in late April after having served nine months. With prompting she recounts some of her successes, “I would say the professional relationships I have developed with the local national professional engineers and local national quality assurance team—and with contractors—is one success. To come in for a short rotation and to gain the Afghans’ and Contractors’ trust and respect is an important thing to do. It’s important to have all three roles—USACE, Afghans, contractors—in a continuous open dialogue. Another success is being able to go onsite (when I do have the chance) and resolve project issues face to face with the contractors.”

The TAN deputy district commander, Spencer, proudly describes her responsibility as “second-in-command of the division’s largest district consisting of over 600 hard working, dedicated military, civilian and contractor professionals responsible for planning and constructing over $3B worth of infrastructure and facilities in northern Afghanistan.”

The Clairton, Pa., native moved to Maryland at age 13 and was appointed to the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School following high school. She entered the academy shortly thereafter, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering mechanics and was commissioned an Air Force second lieutenant.

With a military career comes lots of travel. Spencer has served in Texas, Virginia, Ohio, Hawaii, North Carolina, Florida and Oklahoma. She also spent a tour in the Republic of Korea prior to assuming the deputy commander mantle here. What brought her to Afghanistan and the Corps?

“Technically deployment orders and a C-17—I did not choose the Corps. The Corps chose me,” Spencer said.

Nevertheless she has taken her role in stride here---accomplishing goal #1 of the Corps’ campaign plan; supporting the war fighter by delivering innovative, resilient and sustainable solutions to the Defense Department and the nation. In 10 months Spencer has defined her job as removing or reducing distractions for people who are executing the engineering and construction mission.

“The people make my job interesting. I am typically a USACE customer. Now I am on the other side of the fence ... which is very interesting.”

Spencer’s interest in engineering began early. “I caught the engineering bug while at the AFA Prep School. I took a few courses in engineering mechanics and loved it! I think I like the art of problem solving.”

Early exposure to STEM helped produce a leader who is directly impacting the rebuilding of a nation.

TAN owes a debt of gratitude to Yale’s family, who influenced her to pursue engineering from the age of five years. She oversees projects for the ANP program. Yale grew up and attended college in China and earned a master’s degree from the National University of Singapore. Her home district is Baltimore; however she has worked for private sector companies and even owned her own business. Yale, a structural engineer who has been with TAN for five months, credits her supervisors and a happy work environment for her success in keeping projects in “great shape.” She came to Afghanistan to enhance her work experience and considers the Corps a great place to work as an engineer.

There is no shortage of advice for women aspiring to become engineers from our group of professionals.

Fitzner advises, “Keep trying and don't give up, you are very capable and can be a positive influence to the engineering community.” Communication is also paramount in order to be a successful engineer.

Hall suggests, “Don’t see yourself as a female engineer, your skills should define your status not your gender. Strive to do what you do well, seek help from experts in your field, listen to everyone’s advice but follow what you know is a match for you and you can make your own.”

Lee is equally encouraging. “Find your niche in what you are interested in, be open to diverse possibilities, challenge yourself, and have a positive attitude.”

Lewis said, “Don't let situations or circumstances hinder your development and knowledge intensification. You are in control of you and don't let anyone or anything oppress you!

Raymundo agrees with Fitzner regarding the importance of communication, “Be confident and practice your communication skills. You do not have to know everything—engineering is about working in a team. Working in a team requires you to communicate your skills and ideas professionally and to be able to listen attentively and openly to others. I would advise them to not be afraid of branching out of their comfort zone, and to always look for opportunities to continually improve themselves.”

Spencer shared, “Never let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. I had a physics AP teacher who did not want to write a letter of recommendation for me. According to him, I did not have what it took to go to the United States Air Force Academy. Instead of internalizing his comment, I went on to have great experiences and successes (and failures) which have molded me in the leaders and officer I am today.”

Yale advised, “Be proactive and self-motivated. Be proud to serve as a female engineer and enjoy doing awesome work.”