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Luisa Paiewonsky, 1994 Helene M. Overly Scholarship Recipient


When Luisa Paiewonsky won the WTS Foundation Helene M. Overly Scholarship in 1994, she was in graduate school studying for her Master’s degree in City Planning at Boston University.  She was also working full time at the Massachusetts Highway Department while taking classes in the evening. 

Luisa’s career is one of public service that has taken her from the Peace Corps to MassHighway to an appointment by two governors of different political parties and ultimately to a role with the US DOT's Volpe Center that afforded her the family-integrated work culture she sought.  Recently, WTS pulled her from her busy schedule to find out where she’s been, and where she thinks she’ll land in the future.  

WTS: Did the WTS scholarship make a difference in your academic pursuits?

Paiewonsky: It absolutely did.  I was paying for graduate school myself, so this scholarship was enormously helpful to me.  It paid for two semesters at a time when I was relatively junior in my organization and was wondering how I would ever get ahead.  I knew that a Master’s degree would help me professionally, and WTS’ support made a big difference in helping me reach my goals.

WTS: Where has your career path taken you since receiving that scholarship?

Paiewonsky: I was working in the Commissioner’s office as a staff member at the Massachusetts Highway Department (MassHighway) when I received my Master’s degree in 1996.  I recall proudly showing my boss my diploma the day after I graduated.  The following year, the position of Director of Transportation Planning and Development opened up in my agency.  My boss recalled that I had received my master’s degree in the field, and encouraged me to apply.  I got the job, and after four years in that position, I became Deputy Commissioner at MassHighway, and subsequently was appointed as Assistant Secretary of Transportation. 

When the Commissioner’s position opened up in 2005, I applied.  The position of Highway Commissioner was my dream job, and I received strong backing from the WTS Boston Chapter and the Massachusetts Government Appointments Project (MassGAP), a nonpartisan coalition of women’s groups dedicated to putting qualified women in high level government positions.

I was initially appointed to the position by Governor Romney, and was re-appointed by Governor Deval Patrick when he took office in 2007.  In 2009, when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) was formed, I was appointed as its first Highway Administrator, overseeing roads formerly administered by the Massachusetts Highway Department and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

I then joined the US DOT’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in 2011, initially as a contractor and now as a federal employee.

WTS: How did you land at the US DOT / Volpe Center?

Paiewonsky: I was initially attracted to the Volpe Center when Anne Aylward, who is the Deputy Director at Volpe and a longstanding WTS member, spoke to me at a WTS Boston  New Year’s Reception in 2011.  I had just announced that I would be stepping down from my job as Highway Commissioner to care for a seriously ill member of my family.  Anne told me that when I was ready to think about my next job, she would like to talk to me about Volpe. She described its work, mission, and flexible hours, and its commitment to public service and its employees.  Everything she said was true, and I have been working at Volpe for the past 15 months. 

WTS: What do you do in your current role?

Paiewonsky: Currently I am managing the Safety and Operations Program, working on projects from the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP2) to traffic incident management to asset management.  I love the work, and I especially appreciate Volpe’s family-friendly policies, which allow me to balance my very interesting job with the needs of my wonderful nine-year-old daughter.

WTS: What is it about the transportation industry that keeps you excited?

Paiewonsky: I have loved highways since childhood, and my enthusiasm for them has never waned.  Just about everyone who travels, regardless of their mode, depends on roads and bridges for at least part of their journey, and having the opportunity to participate in the development and maintenance of a state highway system will always be a career highlight for me.  As much as the technology has changed and the field has evolved, it always comes back to getting the fundamentals right—maintaining the roads, strengthening the bridges, and making sure that the safety of travelers and the highway workforce is always treated as a top priority.  To me, transportation is a great public service, and after more than 20 years I still feel very fortunate to be in this profession.

WTS: How did your WTS scholarship help get you to where you are today?

Paiewonsky: As I mentioned, the scholarship paid for two semesters of graduate school when I was relatively junior in my organization and didn’t have a clear path for professional advancement.  Without my graduate degree, I never would have been selected as Director of Transportation Planning—a position that led to other promotions and a six-year stint running the highway system in my home state.

WTS invested in me, and my graduate degree paid off in too many ways to count—career advancement, a network of other women transportation professionals, the opportunity to learn to manage and lead, and many close friendships within a very warm and supportive community.

I was happy to have the opportunity to thank WTS by getting involved in the Boston chapter in a variety of positions, including chapter president, over the years.

WTS: Do you feel that WTS is a worthwhile organization for others to be a part of?

Paiewonsky: Whenever I talk to young women professionals, I tell them that if they join only one organization, it should be WTS International, and that they should get active in their local chapter.   It is one thing to say that WTS offers support for professional development.  But I can say that without WTS International’s scholarship, my chapter’s advocacy for my subsequent appointment as Highway Commissioner, and the organization’s support through every phase of my career, I would never have been given the opportunities that I had.

I also appreciate the WTS ethos of mentoring and “reaching back” to help other young women professionals just as we were supported when we started out.  It has been so gratifying to watch the younger members in our chapter as they take over leadership roles and take our organization in new directions.  This is truly the strength of WTS, and I feel very optimistic about its future.

WTS: Where do you see yourself going next?

Paiewonsky: Life has taught me the folly of assuming that I know what will happen next, but it is likely that I will remain in public service.  I am a former Peace Corps volunteer, have spent 23 years in state and federal government, and have always felt that public service was my professional calling. I know that many of my private-sector colleagues make great contributions to the public as well, but my hope is to remain in government service throughout my career.


WTS Foundation has provided more than $1 million in scholarships to deserving women like Luisa Paiewonsky throughout the transportation industry, supporting the next generation of transportation professionals and advancing the principles of WTS. The Foundation is committed to attracting, retaining, and advancing women in transportation by expanding existing scholarship opportunities to women pursuing transportation-related degrees and by providing and promoting more educational opportunities and career development programs.  If you’d like to contribute to the WTS Foundation, please visit www.WTSinternational.org.

WTS will profile a past WTS Foundation scholarship recipient several times each year. To submit a recommendation for a Where are They Nowprofile, please email mpetto@wtsinternational.org.



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