Music-Lover, Soon-to-be Mom, Environmental Engineer - Christina Jettie


“I feel like everybody has an opinion, and everyone is just thinking about themselves. You’re so worried about what other people think but in reality, they don’t care or aren’t paying attention to you.”

Name: Christina Jettie | Occupation: Environmental Engineer | University and Year of Graduation: Virginia Tech 2009, B.S. | Clemson University M.S.

Maybe I’m a little biased, but interviewing civil engineers is my favorite! Christina is an environmental engineer and was introduced to me through a connection on LinkedIn. I am so glad I met her - we clicked instantly. I had to interrupt our organic conversation to start recording what she was saying with my cell phone because as soon as we met each other, we got right into it.

Christina’s story about how she got into civil engineering involved a lot of trial and error. From a very young age, she wanted to be a astronaut and then realized how challenging it would be: “I realized that it was really hard for women to be astronauts, so then I thought okay, I’ll be an aerospace engineer. So I kind of started engineering there. Then I got into architecture and took a class in high school with the intention that I would apply to architecture school. It was actually so hard for me to be creative that I forgot to do simple stuff like put in doors in houses,” she laughed. “It just wasn’t for me. So I went back to engineering because it seemed more straight forward to me. I applied only to engineering schools with the thought that I would be an industrial engineer. But then during the summer, the only internship I could find was with the Army Corps of Engineers working for their geo-environmental group. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, so I immediately switched my major to civil engineering before my sophomore year. It ended up being the perfect fit.”

“So you basically got into civil engineering by accident?” I hinted.

“Yes, exactly.”

Even though Christina was inspired to switch into civil engineering by her internship, she originally had the notion that civil engineering was strictly bridge building. I find this to be a common misconception among soon-to-be college students and pretty much, everyone. Because her coworkers at her internship had civil engineering degrees, she decided to get one so that one day she could do exactly what they did for her job.

Now, she’s there. Christina has her P.E. and holds a management role at a consulting engineering firm here in Charleston. She’s also one of two women engineers at her company. I asked her if that made it challenging at all.

“I think earlier on, I was very lucky when I came in, because my coworkers already knew me and immediately respected me even though they had 30 years of experience and I had ten. I think at past jobs, maybe I had to fight a little bit more to get respect because I am a woman, but I also think it’s because I was younger too. I remember when I had to ask for my first raise, and I was so scared! I just remember stressing so much. I also stressed so much about when I left my first job, and I thought ‘I don’t think men worry this much about stuff like this.’ It sucks because women get emotional. I remember being in a meeting one time and crying, and I thought to myself ‘Stop crying. Why are you doing that?’”

Christina shared with me that she felt like she had to prove herself more than her male counterparts in college rather than in the working world.

“Like I said, a lot of people I have worked with are biologists and chemists, not just engineers, so I’ve had the support system of other women already in the workplace. I feel like I get a lot more respect being a female engineer when I go to conferences. This is opposite from my experiences in school though.”

Female engineer, woman engineer, women in engineering in Charleston, SC. Portrait and lifestyle photographer in Charleston, SC Vision Balm

I asked her to elaborate, because my experience has been different. A lot of women I have spoken to have said the same thing as me.

She went on: “When I was in college, I feel like I had to prove myself all the time. For example, when we were assigned group projects, the guys would tell me to take the notes and write the report because they knew how to do the technical work, and for some reason, apparently I didn’t. I think I was lucky entering into the professional world because my boss was a woman at my first job. If there was an issue, I felt comfortable going to her. Majority of engineers are men, so I think it’s harder for women to feel comfortable going to their male bosses.”

To make things a little easier, Christina joined a female engineering sorority in college. Joining this group really helped her make it through engineering school. In fact, she is still friends with several of the girls that she met through it. As she puts it, it was nice to have female friends “who were in the same situation” as her.

I asked Christina if she feels there are any rewards being a female engineer. She explained that it’s what you make of it.

“I’ve always kind of played to the fact that I’m a female engineer. I feel more empowered when I’m with a bunch of men and am not afraid to voice my opinion. And also, I feel like a huge reward is that I’ve made really good friends with other female engineers. I also enjoy talking about what I do, and I love hearing about the work that other female engineers do.”

I never thought that making strong connections with other female engineers was a reward, but as soon as Christina said it, I thought it was brilliant! She’s right - I have made so many special connections and close relationships with other female engineers. Because it’s such a male-dominated field, you don’t find men bonding over being engineers, but you do with women!

Female engineer, woman engineer, women in engineering in Charleston, SC. Portraits and lifestyle photographer in Charleston, SC
Female engineer, woman engineer, women in engineering in Charleston, SC. Portraits and lifestyle photographer in Charleston, SC

When I asked Christina if she would tell her 18 year-old self to do anything differently, she said something that made my eyes go wide open. “Oh gosh. So I thought about this. I would tell myself to take harder classes in school.”

Yes, that’s right folks. You read that right! Then it made sense once she explained.

“Especially my junior and senior year, I signed up for the easiest engineering classes to take because I just wanted to get out of school. But, the reason I went to graduate school is because I didn’t feel like I was prepared enough to go directly into a job. I never took microbiology for engineers, and I wish I did because that’s basically what I do now. I was intending to do a master’s and then go onto a PhD. I wanted to teach. After being in the lab for two years in grad school, I knew I couldn’t do it for another six years. I considered going back to school after I started working for a few years. But then I began studying to take the P.E., and I thought it was miserable. I don’t think I could ever go back to school now at this point.”

I feel her on that one. Studying for the P.E. made me want to never open a text book EVER again.

Our conversation shifted, and I asked her if being an engineer was something that became engraved in her identity like it did for me. She told me that she found herself in a similar situation until she met her now-husband.

“I was definitely in the same boat. Especially right out of school. I moved back to Virginia after school and pretty much the only friends I had were the people I worked with. We always discussed engineering. When people asked me what I did for work, I was nervous to tell them that I was an engineer. And gosh, I am trying to think when it changed, and I think it was when I met my husband. His friends weren’t engineers and it opened me up more to think that I don’t need to just be an engineer and devote myself to working 60 hours a week. Now I am one of those people who works my 40 hours, and if I have to do more, I am not a happy person. I want to have a life outside of my job and spend time with my family and friends, and do things I enjoy like travel, go to concerts, and read. All I did at my last job was engineering. I was on a long project that I knew was going to last forever. When I switched jobs, I told my boss I wanted to do more of the business aspect of things. I still get to do the engineering stuff now (trust me, I have an addiction to spreadsheets and dream about them), but I also do marketing. To be a good marketing person and write proposals, you need that technical background so that you know what you are talking about. And it goes with the whole project management thing too. You’re involved with the entire process of a job - business and engineering. I found out that I like being part of that process.”

Female engineer, woman engineer, women in engineering in Charleston, SC. Portraits and lifestyle photographer in Charleston, SC

Learning about the entire process can be fun, but also intimidating. Christina and I talked about how we’ve both felt self-conscious in the workplace or afraid that we appear like we don’t know what we are doing. She expressed that now she realizes that we are our own worst critics.

“I feel like everybody has an opinion and everyone is just thinking about themselves. You’re so worried about what other people think but in reality, they don’t care or aren’t paying attention to you. I think that the cool thing about engineering is that it’s not an individual but team thing. So if you don’t feel comfortable on a topic, you find someone who is an expert on that topic, and no matter what, they are smarter than you anyways. So you don’t have to feel dumb about it. Plus, they are always happy to talk about it. That’s how I’ve learned a lot of stuff through out my career.”

Would Christina recommend engineering to a young girl who is still in school? “Oh definitely. I actually participate in Big Brothers Big Sisters. I have a 13 year-old sister and she’s so good at math and science, and I’m trying to tell her about engineering. I think it’s really cool these days that more people are trying to encourage girls to go into engineering.”

Even though he would recommend engineering to a young girl, Christina isn’t sure if she would necessarily do environmental engineering if she were to go back in time and had the option to switch majors.

“So, I don’t know if I would necessarily do environmental. I love music, and I go to a concert at least once a week. I always joke that if I could go back into a previous life, I would be a lighting engineer. Sometimes I wish I knew if there was another way to get a degree, but I also don’t even know if that’s a career or major. I just feel like science and math is what I am good at. I’ve never been much of persuasive person so I could never do sales or teach. I think I’m in the right field, but sometimes I wonder if I could do a different type of engineering. Unfortunately it’s not really easy to switch from one engineering occupation to another because they are all so different.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I wanted to know if Christina felt like there was anything that she wanted people to know about women engineers. She thought for a minute, and then answered honestly.

“There’s so much! I feel like being a female doesn’t make you less of an engineer than a male. And I think women bring another perspective to it. It’s really interesting because, especially being pregnant and talking with my friends, not a lot of companies offer fair maternity leave. This makes me think that companies don’t really look out for female employees. It’s very frustrating, and I think there’s a long way to go with it, but I definitely think it’s getting there. Also, I would never tell a woman not to be an engineer. As much as it is a male-dominated field, I feel like it’s not as evident now. A lot of men are retiring, and so I think now women are stepping up and taking their jobs. It seems like civil engineering has the most amount of females, and I couldn’t imagine being a female computer or electrical engineer because women in those fields are scarce. But don’t let that stop you from doing it. It’s a lot easier to stand out when you do something well as a minority in this business.”

Christina is expecting a baby girl in a few months. All in all, she loves her job and exclaimed that she can’t wait to encourage her daughter to pursue a math and science field: “I just think it’s rewarding in general. I love my job. I love what I do,” she said.

Female engineer, woman engineer, women in engineering in Charleston, SC. Portraits and lifestyle photographer in Charleston, SC
Female engineer, woman engineer, women in engineering in Charleston, SC. Portraits and lifestyle photographer in Charleston, SC

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