Kentucky EIT’s Devotion to Community Service Drives Her Career and Leadership Priorities
For Erin Wagoner, E.I.T., founding an Engineers Without Borders chapter at the University of Louisville and working on a project to deliver clean water to a community in Belize were more than life changing. These actions allowed her to combine her passion for service with her enthusiasm for engineering. This dedication has continued throughout her career and recently earned her the honor of NSPE’s Young Engineer of the Year.
Wagoner is a project administrator with Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD), a provider of sewer, wastewater, stormwater, and flood protection services, and leads its stormwater permit program. She is active in the Kentucky Society of Professional Engineers and has served on the KSPE and Louisville Chapter boards since 2010. She was also the Louisville Chapter’s 2014–15 president and a graduate of KSPE’s Leadership PE program, for which she continues to facilitate an annual professional session on engineering service.
Wagoner shared her insights on what she enjoys the most about engineering and valuable lessons on facing your fears and finding the right mentor.
What do you love about being an engineer?
My dad is a mechanical engineer and my mom is a nurse. The combination of those two professions shaped my career interests because I enjoy helping people and I enjoy science and technology. The fact that you’re making the world a better place is probably my number one love of engineering.
What career challenges have you faced and how did you overcome these challenges?
As a female engineer, it’s not always easy to feel like you fit in. Fortunately, I did have mentors and coaches to turn to for advice. I learned that I had to stand up for myself and not be intimidated by what can sometimes be the competitive nature of our profession. Another big challenge for me is public speaking. It didn’t come naturally for me, especially early in my schooling and career. I’ve had to work extra hard on externalizing my passions and what I believe in and speaking about that in front of large groups of people.
You are a graduate of the Kentucky Society of Professional Engineers’ Leadership PE program. What lessons did you learn during that program?
I always talk about the KSPE Leadership PE program because it has been so important in my professional development. Leadership PE, from start to finish, is amazing. The sessions that I got the most out of were the communications session and the legislative session in Frankfort. The communications session focuses on getting you comfortable with public speaking and helped to address the fears that I had with public speaking. I learned that public speaking and giving presentations is about making a connection, sharing your experiences, and being genuine. It’s not all about memorizing talking points. You can be effective at public speaking, even if it doesn’t come natural to you.
As a leader, what are you doing to actively help young engineers?
Service is what drives the work that I do. As president of KSPE’s Louisville Chapter, I focused on giving back to the community. During our annual banquet, we raised funds above and beyond what we normally do to donate to the West End School, a local boarding school for underserved young men in our community. That school does amazing things to keep children safe and to help them thrive by providing an education and social support that they might not get at home.
Engineers Without Borders is also close to my heart. I started a chapter with other students while attending the University of Louisville. It was my first experience with international travel, and we helped a community in Gales Point, Belize, with a water service project to help them get access to chlorinated water. This was a unique experience and it helped me with my personal growth. I continue to be an active promoter of Engineers Without Borders because it allows students to learn about the profession while providing services to people that are in real and dire need.
What’s the best career or leadership advice that you’ve received from a mentor or colleague?
“Let’s make this happen” are the words of encouragement that I remember the most from Dr. Hagerty, my graduate school advisor. When I got involved with Engineers Without Borders, I didn’t know how I could participate and meet my graduate school requirements. He said that if this is something that you want to do, there’s absolutely a role that this service project can play in your studies. He recognized my passion and wanted to help me thrive. I was able to use this project as part of an independent study class. His advice has always stuck with me. Think about how you want to serve your community or navigate your career and make it happen.
If there’s a young engineer who is thinking about leaving the profession, how would you convince him or her to not give up on it?
Our profession is so diverse; I feel like there’s something for everyone. If there is something that you love about engineering, focus on that. Find a mentor to help you to navigate your path. This should be someone that you can be 100% open and honest with and who won’t judge you for your shortcomings.