A Day in the Life of Civil Engineer Eileen Velez Vega

Meet Eileen M. Velez Vega, PE, a civil engineer with Kimley-Horn Puerto Rico, LLC. She is also very involved in SWE in her area. Find out how she got there and the types of projects she’s working on.

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A Day in the Life of Civil Engineer Eileen Velez VegaI’m the first engineer in my family and they always supported me. I grew up in a small town in Puerto Rico.  My mom wanted me to see the world and she worked very hard for me to go to NASA’s Space Camp. She wanted me to love my island, but to know the world was much bigger.  I was good in math and science, so my teachers recommended engineering. I decided that I wanted to challenge myself and become an engineer.  Growing up Hispanic, I never felt different, and being bilingual sure helped me feel confident to communicate my passion for engineering and travel to different parts of the world.

As a young girl growing up on an island, I learned early the importance of transportation, specifically aviation. It helped us stay connected with the world. My mother also loved traveling, and she transferred her dreams to me. I became a Civil Engineer with a specialty in Aviation.

I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. I became a SWE member and actively participated as a Collegiate Section leader. I was also a member of the Steel Bridge student competitions with the American Society of Civil Engineers.

As a sophomore, I applied for a NASA Undergraduate Research Program at Marshall Space Flight Center, and the 10-week summer program became a 2-year co-op internship. It was the best opportunity for personal and professional growth.

Before graduating, I received an offer from the US Army Research and Development Center in the Airfields and Pavements Branch and decided to take the chance! While working with the US Army, I completed my Master’s Degree in Engineering from Mississippi State University.

In 2006, I started my consulting career as an Aviation project manager at Kimley-Horn in West Palm Beach, Florida. In 2014, I relocated to Puerto Rico to lead the Kimley-Horn office there. The new Puerto Rico office has been an amazing opportunity for me to grow as a leader, an engineer, and a business manager. Currently I lead airport infrastructure projects in all 10 airports in Puerto Rico. And I’m happy to be home!

Relocating to Puerto Rico has presented the biggest challenges for me as an engineer and a business leader due to the political and economic instability. One of the most impactful events in my career was the 2017 Hurricane Maria disaster. There was so much to do that I never left the island. We survived because of great support and tenacity. The hurricane didn’t just teach us to be prepared with fuel, food and water, but it taught us to include resiliency in all our business plans, design and construction projects and our lives.

From every “failure” we learn and we cannot get discouraged from continuing our lives. In 2010, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin Lymphoma. I was doing so well in my career and life that I couldn’t believe I would have to put my life on hold. My doctor called it, “an inconvenience in my time”. I felt I had failed to take care of myself even though it was not my fault. I was also 5-months pregnant, and the trauma changed my life. Fast forward to many rounds of chemo, a stem cell transplant and two years on disability, it has been seven years, and I’m in remission. I never stopped fighting, and I stayed positive. Today I look back at the experience, and I use it as motivation to keep going strong and to help other patients and survivors. This experience also taught me the importance of family and priorities in life.

In my work, I’m more involved now in project management and business development, but I still do technical things. This year, I’ve led the production of airport runway and taxiway pavement rehabilitation projects.  My work impacts hundreds to thousands of airport passengers on a daily basis but they will never know because as long as everything is running smoothly, the engineer is the “invisible hero”.

My advice is to have initiative and don’t wait for someone to make the decisions for you! I believe I had great opportunities because I prepared and I took risks. I never waited for someone to tell me to apply for an internship, or ask for a mentor or to send someone an introduction message. I just did and it usually paid off!

See Eileen’s Meet an Engineer video on the SWENext YouTube Channel.

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