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Rachel Usedom, PE: Engineering Opportunity for Advancement

Rachel Usedom, PE: Engineering Opportunity for Advancement
The Greek orator Demosthenes said, “Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.” Mark Thomas Project Engineer Rachel Usedom, PE knows this to be true. But she also understands that it’s equally important  to recognize a small opportunity for what it is and what it can become. Fortunately for her, she had some early training in that regard. 
“I studied civil engineering at Loyola Marymount University. But my grandfather was a geotechnical engineer in San Francisco. He worked on a lot of the structural foundations in the city. So, growing up I heard a lot about and saw the evidence of what he did. I was able to make the connection between his work and its result. And that was pretty cool. When I applied to schools, civil engineering was definitely on my radar because of what my grandfather did.”
But early exposure wasn’t the only reason Ms. Usedom sought opportunity in engineering. 
“I also like the challenge of complicated classes. I’m competitive and I like to challenge myself. So, when I took on civil engineering, I really enjoyed all of the classes. Loyola Marymount focused on general civil engineering; they didn’t have specified engineering classes like transportation. But in my junior year, one of my professors asked if anyone wanted to attend the California Transportation Foundation Education Symposium. I thought, ‘Why not? If there’s a spot open I’d love to go…’”
She went. And the weekend symposium exposed her to a wealth of transportation industry professionals as well as different facets of the transportation industry itself—from construction to design to transit. She also participated in (and won) a mock RFP presentation process and most importantly she met one of the principals at Mark Thomas, a California-based planning and design firm. 
“The summer after my junior year I got an internship at Mark Thomas in Walnut Creek. And I got my real first introduction into the world of transportation there. I worked on a lot of small projects like pedestrian and bike improvements and park-and-rides. But I got a lot of exposure to many different types of projects and I really enjoyed what I was doing. Then I went back to school for my senior year and I gained another internship with a contractor that had a project (a new life-sciences building) on my campus. When I graduated, though, I got a job with Mark Thomas.” 
After working in the Mark Thomas Walnut Creek office for a year and a half, Ms. Usedom recognized a small opportunity—one with the potential for greater things.
“We had won a large project in Santa Barbara, a highway widening project on the 101 Freeway. We don’t have an office in Santa Barbara, but we wanted to have an employee there, so that we could have a person on the ground at all times to keep an eye on the project. When the company asked if anyone was interested in relocating to Southern California, I was all on board. It was a phenomenal opportunity. I was only a year-and-a-half out of school, but I knew that I would get to work with the president of our company and one of our top project managers. That doesn’t happen often. So, I relocated to Santa Barbara. 
“First, Santa Barbara is just beautiful. And it also was great to be right in the middle of a fantastic project. I got to be very hands on. I went to project meetings with the clients and Caltrans and I got to interact with everyone on the project. It was just a great growth opportunity for me. And I got a deep understanding of the project and its scope, the complications, and the process for finding and creating solutions. It was great to work closely with our president and the top project managers in our office, who have a lot of experience with large projects like this. It really accelerated my career and my understanding of the industry.”
Ms. Usedom also cites that kind of access as a virtue of working at Mark Thomas. With approximately 200 employees, Mark Thomas enabled her to work with and learn from virtually everyone in the company. Today, she calls their Irvine office home, but still works much of the time on the Santa Barbara project, greatly looking forward to seeing it from inception to construction. She’s also working on several smaller projects (a bridge replacement in San Luis Obispo County and an intersection improvement in northern California). But she credits the size, structure, and people of Mark Thomas for providing such an outstanding learning environment.
“I get experience on pretty much every element of a project, from writing reports to actual design to meeting with clients. You really get a hand in everything. It makes your learning experience comprehensive. For me, working at Mark Thomas has been the best-case scenario. Everyone there always encourages us to get involved in every element of each project.” 
But Mark Thomas isn’t the only influence in Ms. Usedom’s career and transportation education. 
“Since I moved to Orange County, I’ve been trying to get involved in different organizations, so that I can get my footing in the area. And we have people in our office who are involved in WTS. One woman in our office has really been encouraging us to explore WTS and go to the events. And Mark Thomas as a company fully supports this. So, it’s been a great way to see what’s out there and to get connected. Also, before I moved to Santa Barbara I started getting involved with WTS in San Francisco. 
“I’ve always been intrigued by WTS simply because of its mission and the critical mass of strong women in engineering and transportation. It’s an important mixture of different transportation modes and disciplines. From planners to engineers, it’s a great way to get exposure to every part of the transportation industry, as well as different career paths taken by strong women. That interaction of modes and disciplines and women at all levels is really unique to WTS and WTS-LA. So, I’m very eager to get more involved.”
Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises. Rachel Usedom knows this to be true. She acted on that knowledge to advance her career. And today, she recognizes that both Mark Thomas and WTS-LA continue to present unique opportunities to advance and grow the career she loves. 
Photos © John Livzey


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