The path from secretary to Air Force engineer

  • Published
  • By Veronica Kemeny
  • AFCEC Public Affairs

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Nancy Coleal was raised by a father from the greatest generation who shared the viewpoint of many from his era: His daughter would make a wonderful secretary and homemaker.  

He raised her to believe being a secretary with incredible typing skills was her destiny.

Despite his emphasis on secretarial and homemaking skills, her father also instilled the skills needed to fix and make things.

“I was building tractor sheds and chicken coops, assisting with electrical and plumbing repairs, trimming trees and digging out stumps, moving sand dunes and building a cinder-block pool,” said Coleal. “Dad always tutored me in math and he paid me according to the quality of my work, a dollar a job.”

Her friends may have been in piano lessons or babysitting, but she was learning real hands-on life lessons.

“Dad taught me how to change oil and to change a tire before I was allowed to drive,” said Coleal.

Following the career path her father suggested, she joined the civil service as a secretary. Along the way, she was exposed to other career opportunities within her skill set. 

“I started as a secretary at Edwards AFB (California) Rocket Propulsion Laboratory and then the flight surgeon’s office,” said Coleal.  “I then became a licensed emergency medical technician, a licensed realtor, studied contract law and did a year of business school before I started engineering school at Gonzaga University.  Thank goodness my dad made me get those typing skills.  Who knew everyone would be their own personal secretary and typing eight hours a day on a computer as an engineer?”

During her first two years of engineering, math seemed very intimidating.

“Every time I felt like quitting, I remembered my husband, a doctor, thought I had more potential than to be just a secretary, and that stuck with me,” said Coleal. “Along my career-path expedition I also took college courses continuously after high school, trying to figure out what interested me.”

Finding the right fit in engineering at school was part of the journey.

“The women in Gonzaga's School of Engineering were only 10 out of about 60 students in the class of 1990, but we were all in the top 25 percent of the class,” said Coleal.I chose electrical because I was interested in physics, which was a minor of electrical engineering. I was not a tinkerer like mechanical engineers and I didn't want to do toilets, which is civil engineering. Also, I had heard electrical engineering was a more desirable degree — harder to do and better paying.  What's the quote?  Why climb Mount Everest — because it's there. Why go to the moon — because it's not easy.”

Today Nancy works at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, and is the chief of the Air Force utility rate management team.

“I work to help utility engineers at bases understand their jobs and analyze their base’s bills from electric, gas, natural gas, water and wastewater … and build relationships with their local utility companies’ representatives supporting a base,” said Coleal.

“Nancy ensures cost avoidance so that we can maintain our budget without having to ask for additional money, which is so important when dealing with Air Force utility rates,” said Robert Gill, director of AFCEC’s Energy Directorate.

Coleal enjoys her job and is proud of what she can bring to the Air Force mission.

“I’ve worked my way up to chief, URMT, and I’ve loved saving millions of dollars for the government and taxpayers. I’ve also enjoyed helping base utility engineers and contracting officers understand utility acquisition and rate management.”

Her job allows her to travel the world, and she has been to 80 installations ensuring the Air Force is receiving the best utility rates available.

“I love the Air Force and that I’m honoring my 94-year-old father’s legacy as a living World War II veteran and former flight navigator, bombardier and gunner,” said Coleal.

“Nancy proves that people with diverse skill sets from all backgrounds can come and be part of a successful team,” said Gill.

Editor’s Note: Each year, Engineer’s Week is a good opportunity for Air Force professionals in the STEM science, technology, engineering and math disciplines to reach out to their local communities to help encourage and mentor tomorrow’s STEM professionals.