New Mexico engineer stays close to native roots

Marla Doyle, P.E.
City Engineer/Deputy Public Works Director
City of Oceanside, California

These days, a typical week for Sandra Lucero might include a meeting with government officials in Albuquerque to discuss the details of an upcoming project, a trip to Acoma Pueblo to meet with pueblo leaders and residents to present a status report on bringing a sewer system to their community, and participation in a feast days celebration at Isleta Pueblo just south of Albuquerque where she lives with her husband and two children, and where they have just completed construction of their new home.

Growing up as one of four children in Ganado, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation, Sandra never dreamed of becoming a civil engineer. Although her roots are traditional, when Sandra was eight years old, her parents moved the family to Colorado so that they could experience life off the Reservation. This experience fueled Sandra's desire to pursue a career in civil engineering.

Sandra received her bachelor's degree in civil engineering at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. Her education was made possible by a scholarship from the Indian Health Service (IHS) under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which required that she later work for the IHS to fulfill her obligation to the scholarship. After graduation, Sandra began her career in public works working as a Project Manager for Bernalillo County's Public Works Division in Albuquerque. She enjoyed the technical challenges of her position there, as well as the close contact she maintained with the community during the project planning and design process. "Working with the business owners and residents who will be impacted by an improvement project is an ongoing process and one which needs to begin early in the planning stages. It is rewarding to be a part of guiding the community through the process and keeping them involved in the project as it progresses," she says.

In 2000, Sandra was offered the position that is enabling her to repay her scholarship, and she became an Environmental Engineer in Sanitary Facilities Construction for the IHS in Albuquerque. Her duties include design and construction of water and wastewater projects for the Pueblos to which she is assigned. Projects are varied, and include wells, pump houses, sewage lagoons, solid waste dump closures, water storage tanks and installing water lines and sewer and septic systems to individual homes. Sandra finds that her early years growing up on a reservation give her firsthand knowledge of the challenges of living in a remote area. Sandra says, "As new infrastructure is brought onto the reservations and people have clean, potable water to drink, there are no words to describe how it feels to know that I am a part of making a difference to lives. Living on a reservation with my family makes me even more committed to provide public service and to do the best job I can."

Sandra is thriving in the non-traditional, male dominated field of public works. She has encountered widespread acceptance both in the office and field environment, and has created strong working relationships with both male and female team members. Although it is sometimes difficult to be immediately accepted, especially when climbing up the side of a water tank wearing construction boots and a hard hat, she has found that once she establishes her competence and team attitude, being female becomes a non-issue. Sandra says being female is an asset when working with residents and business owners impacted by a project. She says many people equate being female with being more empathetic and understanding, important qualities when working with a business owner who will face months of impacts to his business due to an upcoming construction project. In addition, her heritage as a Navajo is invaluable in working with American Indian tribes and other cultures in understanding their individual needs and concerns regarding proposed projects.

Sandra is enthusiastic about her position with the IHS. "It is the Mission of the IHS to partner with American Indians to raise their physical, mental, social, and spiritual health to the highest level, and I work with dedicated individuals that make this happen. In my Service Unit, there are eleven staff members, eight who are American Indians. I collaborate with three other engineers, one of whom is also a Native American female. The public works field offers many rewarding career opportunities for young women."

For a woman anywhere, a career in public works presents daily challenges and rewards. In Sandra's case, she has been able to stay close to her native roots and finds great satisfaction in her work, which is improving the life, health, and well-being of the American Indians that she serves in New Mexico. She works with Pueblo communities whose heritage reaches into ancient history and who still remain strong in their customs and beliefs. This is especially important to her since her family lives in Isleta Pueblo and her children are growing up in a culture where their sense of sharing and togetherness as a community is an everyday tradition. Sandra says, "I live and work in a community that embraces and honors diversity through a variety of deeply rooted cultures and I couldn't ask for better than that."