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I'm an Airman Engineer: Taking risks

Maria "Tracy" Meeks led the $5.1 million renovation of the Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, main gate. She was three years out of school at the time. (U.S. Air Force photo/Steve Gibbs/Released)

Managing the $3.5 million repair of an active taxiway at Mountain Home Air Force Base was the most challenging project to date for Maria "Tracy" Meeks. She was assigned to the 366th Civil Engineer Squadron Flight in 2007 as a GS-11. (U.S. Air Force photo/Bob Howard/Released)

Civil engineer Maria "Tracy" Meeks is pictured here with her husband and three sons. Meeks credits her success in large part to her husband, TJ, the primary caretaker of their children. (Courtesy photo/Katie Dunley/released)
Maria "Tracy" Meeks
Graduate Student
AFIT Engineering Management Program

  Do you remember the crossroads that brought you to your current career path? I remember it clearly. I was struggling to make ends meet while working a minimum-wage job during my second semester at Boise State University in Idaho. I knew I wanted to get a bachelor's degree but had no idea what major to pursue. It was then that my friend and mentor Bill Spoerer asked me if I wanted to work as an intern at the 366th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental Flight at Mountain Home Air Force Base. However, I would never have become a U.S. Air Force civil engineer without recognizing and mitigating limitations, seeking mentorship and leaving my comfort zone.

  I had never considered engineering as a career, a self-imposed bias that perhaps is rooted in my family heritage and traditions. For whatever reason, I always thought my brother would be an engineer, but not me. I hated math and didn't inherit the "mechanical gene," so I had no intuition about how to fix cars or machine parts. I had not yet realized that I was, in fact, my biggest limiting factor. So the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was getting that internship at Mountain Home. It was there that I was exposed to what civil engineers do, and I loved it. The base was a small-scale city, and all the engineers made it possible for the mission to go forward and thrive -- I was so excited to be part of it.

  I began as a contracted intern in 1999, but progressed into a General Schedule 04 student trainee internship in 2001. I struggled and fought to break through my propensity to limit myself, especially with mathematics. In all honesty, Calculus II almost broke my spirit, but I rallied over a long summer semester to come out on top. I was a GS-05 when I graduated from Boise State University with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 2004, and I was then hired full time into a GS-07/9/11 career progression position within the flight. During my time at the 366th CES Environmental Flight, I worked with an amazing team that challenged me with increasing responsibilities spanning almost every environmental protocol, and taught me the value of teamwork and professionalism.

  I was very lucky to have several mentors within the squadron who encouraged me to be a lifelong learner, and to seek new job experience and education opportunities. With that motivation, I accepted a management reassignment to the GS-11 pavement engineer position in the 366th CES Engineering Flight in 2007 to put my degree to work. Was I scared when they asked me to manage a $3.5 million repair of an active taxiway and a $5.1 million main gate renovation, only three years out of school? Absolutely. I definitely developed a new appreciation for the term "sink or swim," but was energized by the trust and confidence that my leadership placed in me. Another challenge was that I was the only female engineer in an office of eight, and I worked side-by-side with middle-aged male contractors who had worked construction longer than I had been alive. It was intimidating and sometimes frustrating because I had to work harder to prove myself to the people with inherent biases. In the end, it was very rewarding. Overcoming those daily challenges was empowering; it bolstered my self-confidence to take on responsibility, and it ultimately made me a better engineer.

  I remember sitting at my desk on a particularly busy afternoon in spring 2009 when I got a call from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, with an impromptu job opportunity for a position at Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe. Amid the butterflies in my tummy and the large pile of work on my desk, I hesitated about five minutes before accepting the position. This opportunity was a dream come true for me both personally and professionally.
I am proud to say my father served on active duty in the Air Force for 25 years, and I was very blessed to spend my childhood overseas. My mother was born in Spain, and I still have family there. I had always dreamed of returning to Europe. I started as a YD-02 (under the National Security Personnel System) Water/Wastewater Utility Engineer for the CE operations branch, but was quickly reassigned to the Asset Optimization Branch Chief position to facilitate the standup of new asset management tools across USAFE bases. In 2011, I was competitively selected for a Sustainment, Restoration and Modernization Programmer position that was converted back to a GS-13 when NSPS was repealed. While I was definitely in the right place at the right time, my initial willingness to leap into a new opportunity helped open all of these doors.

  Professionally, I will always remember my time at Headquarters USAFE as truly transformational. The work and people on staff were second to none. I learned so much about strategic long-term planning, host nation and other partnerships, dynamic processes that span across all of our CE organizations, and the camaraderie among Airmen that happens outside of the continental U.S.. Personally, Germany will always hold a special place in my heart as the birthplace of my three children (one plus twins) and many amazing friendships.

  In 2014, I was competitively selected for civilian developmental education in-residence at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. I am getting paid to go to school full-time and will get my master's degree in engineering management in 18 months, which is a pretty sweet deal. I've had to learn how to be a student again after 10 years outside of school, so I'm outside of my comfort zone on most days. Despite the challenges, the faculty, students and staff at AFIT are amazing. It's energizing to know that our research impacts how we are transforming CE.

  So, what magic formula allowed me to skip a grade, get to live in Europe and then get paid to go back to school? Here are my two cents: I think those opportunities were due to a combination of solid work performance, professional military education and being open to adventure and risk. Don't worry about work performance too much -- just be passionate about doing your best and taking care of our Air Force, and you will succeed. A mentor of mine at USAFE once told me that as a civilian, professional military education sets you apart from your peers; it shows senior leaders that you are motivated to be well rounded.

  I attended Squadron Officer School in-residence at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, in 2008 and Air Command and Staff College by correspondence in 2012. Both experiences afforded me the chance to learn new things about our Air Force and get a better understanding of the active-duty perspective, and they were fun! SOS in-residence includes minimum fitness standards and academic testing, and ACSC by correspondence has multiple tests and assignments. But, believe me: If I can do it, so can you. To get through it, I had to be open-minded and be willing to accept the risk of failure. I have no doubt that successfully completing PME was a significant part of my journey to get where I am today.

  I am a female engineer working for the U.S. Air Force, and I love it. Although I do still feel like a minority, I have been fortunate to receive wonderful support from my leaders, mentors and an amazing family. I'm so thankful to Bill Spoerer and many others for their guidance and counsel, without whom I would not have been motivated to seize opportunities and break through my own limitations.

(Editor's Note: This article is part of the "I'm an Airman Engineer" series for CE Online. The series focuses on individual CE Airmen to highlight their careers and the diversity, knowledge, career fields and people within our community.)