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Do you ever have a moment where you realize that this is your life, and you just kind of observe it and declare that it is good? Last night, I was putting two sick kids to bed. One was complaining of a headache, the other was coughing nonstop. I walked down their hallway, turned into the game room, passed the stairs where our beloved ginger cat, Beowulf, was waiting to grab my foot as I passed, and went into the master bathroom for Motrin and Dimetapp. It was in that moment, right about when I passed Beowulf, that it hit me. I am a structural engineer. My salary got us the mortgage for this gorgeous house. I have a job that leaves me energy for my family when I get home. My kids have their own rooms, good food, medicine, clothes that fit and suit the weather, and a great place to grow up. We even have two adorable cats. This holiday season will be the first of many in this home. Every single day is still a first, and a reminder that yes, we made it. 2017 was the year that we finally made it.

Today, as we celebrate the holidays with a big lunch for the entire division, we’re all festive as we close up our projects for the year, and prepare to start back after the holidays with more enthusiasm and motivation than ever. This is my second holiday season at the state DOT, but the end of my first full calendar year here, and my first full calendar year designing structures. While I am still not where I would like to be as far as my aptitude for the subject matter is concerned, I can say with confidence that I am a better engineer today than I was a year ago. That in itself is something to be grateful for.

I designed four new bridges this year, and designed repairs for five. The repairs ranged from new rails to complete structural overhauls. I have a few more new bridges in my queue for after the first of the year, and was just assigned another one this morning. One thing I learned is that life is never boring when you are a bridge engineer. Every bridge is different, and even the simplest one imaginable can throw you a curveball that makes it require something really interesting of you. The first bridge I designed this year was a simple two-span thing across a gorge on a rural state highway down by the coast. We thought it would be so simple that we could just assign standard drawings for its components, and all the engineering it would require would be quantities calculations and foundation design. Then we realized that the topographical conditions required us to make the first span roughly 1/3 the length of the second, requiring an extensive analysis of the piles supporting the interior bent. I learned a lot from this bridge.

I’ll never forget that analysis. It was during it that I realized I no longer had to consciously make myself think like a structural engineer. That pile analysis was what it took to push me from a pavement engineer who had, for some reason, been hired to design bridges, to a legitimate structural engineer. My work has been much less exhausting since. Nobody can ever tell me the human mind isn’t malleable. In 2017, I learned to think like a structural engineer, and the prospect of doing this for the rest of my life became a lot less taxing.

I have noticed that my bridges have gotten progressively more difficult. I had one that was built in two stages. I had a couple with very different geometric concerns than any I’d seen in the past. I’ve started getting bridges that go over roadways, not just over water. This adds more considerations to the design process. Sometimes I worry that I stagnate in skills development, or that literally everybody in this department is a better engineer than I am, but when I look at my trajectory, and see that it is generally upward, I am reasonably sure that I am a good enough engineer to be here, and that this is a strong foundation upon which to build.

I also received some very meaningful projects, my first extensive repairs. I’d done rail retrofits before, but this was the first time I got assigned to design major structural repairs for bridges to prevent them from becoming structurally deficient. It was amazing, and if I had my choice of what to do forever, it would be that. Designing new bridges is fun and all, but repairing old bridges is amazing. You have to look through plan sets older than your parents, figure out how the bridge was built, why the faulty part of it is failing, and how to fix it without a loss of functionality. Every repair is different. There is no standard for any of it. You never know what you’re going to find when you start looking into an old bridge. It’s amazingly cool. I did three extensive repair bridges this year, and two minor ones.

I inspected my first bridges this year, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get that red clay off my boots! That was an interesting and challenging experience. I don’t know that our local personnel knew what to make of the delegation from the Capitol. We were a bunch of skinny vegetarians with really clean safety gear, and the area engineer correctly pointed out that my cuffed skinny jeans might not have been the best thing to wear in the field. But as the sun rose, and we crossed the river in hip waders, ultimately inspecting all 35 spans of the bridge in question, I think we earned their respect. Their intern had never met a female engineer before. I hope inspecting that bridge with me will influence his perspective positively as he goes on in his career. While I don’t expect I’ll be applying for a position as a full time inspector anytime soon, I enjoyed the experience more than I thought I would.

The second half of the year was mostly consumed by the Professional Engineer’s exam. I prepared for it, and ultimately took it in October. I passed on the first try, keeping the departmental winning streak alive. Nobody from here has failed in years. The pressure was high. I scored a respectable 82. I deserve to be in this profession. I have earned the right to be here, to have the title of PE. I don’t know when this will be real to me. I still haven’t unpacked my books. I need to do that soon.

In all, it was a good year. There’s a lot to celebrate this holiday season. As I submit the design notes for my last bridge of the year, I feel triumphant. Nine bridges are better because I was here. I contributed positively to the PE exam stats for my organization, my state, and my university. I feel less stressed than I did a year ago. I have reached every major milestone of adulthood that had felt distant from me before, owning a home, passing the PE exam, etc. I am not where I want to be. I hope to make major improvements in many aspects of my life next year, earn a large raise, and do better in every way. The trajectory is positive, though, and I can’t complain about a thing.

 

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