The Power of Mentoring

Michael Paddock, P.E., M.ASCE, a 30-year member of ASCE, is a licensed civil engineer and surveyor. His professional career was spent managing teams of over 100 engineers designing infrastructure projects over $1 billion, and he was the youngest-ever recipient of Wisconsin’s “Engineer of the Year” award. After a near-death cancer experience, he was motivated to begin a pro bono engineering career that has delivered projects with Engineers Without Borders USA, Rotary, Bridges to Prosperity, and other nonprofits on five continents over the last 20 years.

In today’s Member Voice article, Paddock writes about the power of mentoring: a wonderful experience he’s had mentoring a young woman in Guatemala, how mentoring helps the civil engineering profession and how mentoring helps make you a better civil engineer.  

I have always enjoyed mentoring, and I consider it my professional obligation to give back to civil engineering. So I jumped at the chance to mentor one of the Engineers Without Borders USA staff members in Guatemala – a firecracker of a young woman weighing hardly more than a sack of cement and working in this male-dominated profession in a machismo country.

Jeanny and Mike at the new San Antonio Bridge.
Jeanny and Mike at the new San Antonio Bridge. PHOTO: Mike Paddock

Women in engineering have challenges in the U.S., but in Guatemala, the headwinds are all the stronger. That Jeanny Rios is a graduate of San Carlos University – one of only three women who graduated in her engineering class of 150 – a registered engineer in Guatemala, and has six years of experience working on water/sanitation/hygiene (WASH) projects in the rural Mayan Highlands, speaks volumes about who she is.

Jeanny has done work on potable water projects that provide lifesaving clean water to rural homes, schools and even health facilities here. The absence of clean water, soap and toilets in a healthcare facility may sound absurd, but it’s a reality here. It should be an affront to every civil engineer.

This problem is global throughout the developing world. Only 44 percent of facilities have water with which to prepare food … soap with which to clean medical equipment and wash everything from hands to bedding to incubators for fragile newborns, who are at greatest risk of all.

three of the community presidents
Jeanny (second from the left) with Aury, Ingrid and Yomara, three of the community presidents. PHOTO: Mike Paddock

I met Jeanny a year ago in the Highlands, where she had identified a much-needed bridge project. She clearly understood that it was not enough to provide WASH to a health center or school if access meant putting one’s life at risk. Whether to try crossing the river or not was a daily decision patients and parents had to make. Neighbors could not get access to the health facility to get the medicines and advice they needed. Mothers and fathers had to decide every day if they would send their children to school and take the risk that a rainstorm might leave them stranded. This project’s drivers were the same that I had heard time and again: access to schools, clinics and markets was dangerous at best, and cut off during the rainy season.

Jeanny asked if I would mentor her, and of course I could not resist the opportunity. We immediately bonded over exciting water topics – pressure regulators, metering and anaerobic wastewater treatment – as only engineers can. Her passion for WASH had been driving her past gender roadblocks; it kept her focused on her goal to help her people. She clearly had energy, or pilas as we would say in Guatemala.

I saw her skillfully work with the community and political leaders. On this bridge project, I couldn’t help but notice that all five community presidents were also women, an absolute first for me in 20 years of volunteer work in Guatemala. Ingrid, the president of her community and clearly the leader of the five, told me she makes the treacherous weekly trip across the river to the health center to collect medications for her neighbors who are unable to wade through the powerful waters. And the need for the bridge felt all the more real when I returned to help start construction: two of the presidents were now pregnant and worried about being cut off from the health facility when it came time to give birth.

All projects have their challenges, and the bridge was no exception. Backhoes broke down, material deliveries were delayed, and organizing the 40 volunteer workers each and every day was always a test. But Jeanny and these five presidents skillfully managed the situations by encouraging, directing and even demanding when needed. No challenge presenting itself was a match for these determined water women.

The first moto taxi to cross the bridge, providing lifesaving access to the health center.
The first moto taxi to cross the bridge, providing lifesaving access to the health center. PHOTO: Mike Paddock

A year in the making, it was my privilege to stand next to Jeanny as we watched the first taxi drive across the bridge. Tears of joy flowed as one grandmother described the river as no longer an ugly, dangerous barrier for her … but a beautiful gift of nature that could now be admired from the safety of the bridge.

As I prepared to leave I apologized to Jeanny, regretting that we had not been able to spend the time I had hoped reviewing some of the detailed calculations we’d wanted to cover. Jeanny reached to place a reassuring hand on my shoulder, and showed me her notebook. It was filled with “Lessons Learned” from our time together. “You gave me so much more,” she said. “You showed me, as an engineer, how to help.”

Many organizations fail to recognize local talent and the capacity-building opportunity a little mentoring can achieve. Especially when it comes to women. Jeanny’s life goal is to develop an appropriate wastewater treatment method that can be used countrywide across Guatemala – probably the single largest WASH challenge in her country. To that end, she has returned to school to get her master’s degree at the University of San Carlos, in Guatemala City. There is not a doubt in my mind that she will succeed, and I look forward to the day when she mentors me on the method’s application.

Learn more about ASCE’s new mentoring program, Mentor Match, and get involved.

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