From Engineering to Public Office

In December 2020, longtime SWE member Eileen Vélez Vega, P.E., was appointed Puerto Rico’s Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Public Works, the first woman to occupy this role. In a podcast produced earlier this year, she reflected on her life’s journey, from school days to engineering, to facing serious illness, to public office. A condensed and edited version of the transcript follows.

For Alice Orrell, P.E., a mechanical engineer and SWE member from the Eastern Washington Section, the truism “Once an engineer, always an engineer” is borne out in many ways. “I regularly read stories about interesting women in nonengineering careers, and then find out they are engineers,” she said. “Or, I am aware of an exceptional engineer and think, I’d really like to know more about her and her career path.”

Tapping into this curiosity, as a personal pandemic project, Orrell said, “I created my own Zoom mini-speaker series in early 2022. While Zoom fatigue is a real thing, the silver lining is that it allows us to come together from around the country and world and provides an inclusive opportunity for different speakers with a diverse audience.”

One of the speaker series guests, Eileen Vélez Vega, P.E., is a longtime SWE member and the current Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Public Works for Puerto Rico (DTOP). Appointed the first woman secretary of DTOP, she took office Jan. 2, 2021.

Prior to the appointment, Vélez Vega, who was named a SWE Distinguished New Engineer in 2013 and an Emerging Leader in 2018, served on the SWE board of directors, a position she stepped down from as she took on her new role.

Orrell explained that, “After that big announcement, we didn’t hear much from the busy secretary. With just over a year in office under her belt, I wanted to hear about her engineering journey — how was her new job really going, and how had her engineering journey led her to her position.”

While Orrell conceived of and produced the interview, it was conducted live by noted radio and podcast host Reka Robinson. SWE Magazine thanks Orrell for generously sharing, condensing, and editing the original transcript.

As secretary of DTOP, Eileen Vélez Vega, P.E., considers securing funds when there were none previously, and establishing a maintenance budget to be among her greatest achievements. Credit: DTOP

Eileen Vélez Vega: Let me start by saying that my mom was my first role model and mentor. She transferred all of her love for aviation to me by talking about the world and traveling. My dad was a sales representative. He had these little notebooks that looked like the ones we use for engineering calculations. And he had a lot of numbers in them. He gave me one and I just started writing numbers, and numbers, and numbers. He thought, “OK, maybe she’ll be good at numbers.”

And I was good at math and science. And I developed a passion for aviation and aerospace and got interested in NASA and wanting to become an astronaut. Then, a teacher at school saw that I was really good at math and science, and they sent me to a math and science summer camp at a university.

And then later, I went to space camp, and I was hooked. I took all these [career assessment] tests that led me to civil engineering because that discipline impacts society directly. And I thought, “I want to be a civil engineer with a concentration in airports because I love to travel. We [civil engineers] have a very high impact in society and on quality of life.”

Reka Robinson: Did you have to do anything to make all this happen?
EVV: I got scholarships. I also worked through college. I’ve worked since I was 16 years old. My mom and dad did a lot of fundraisers for me. I sold a lot of chocolates to go to space camp! That was a week away from home. The first time away from my mom and dad, and it was amazing. My mom and dad taught me that there are no limits and I believed them, and it’s worked out so far!

RR: You also eventually interned at NASA. What was it like being an intern at NASA?
EVV: My project was a space elevator — taking an elevator from Earth all the way up to space. So it was a very high-level concept we were working on. There were 25 of us in the intern research program, two of us from Puerto Rico, so I got to meet a lot of students from all over the United States. I told my mentor that I would love to be in the NASA co-op program, which is longer than the 10-week summer internship. I applied and I was accepted and participated in the co-op program for two years.

RR: OK, so what was it like being a Latina engineering intern and co-op student at NASA?
EVV: One of the talks we had at NASA was on diversity and minorities. At 20 years old, I didn’t know that I was a minority at NASA. That was eye-opening for me. That’s where I learned that I was a minority and learned that term, because in Puerto Rico we are all the same. I have never seen me being Latina as an obstacle because no, that is part of my superpower! I’m always thankful for that day because that’s when I learned that I was considered a minority and I thought, “OK, sure, that’s fine by me. It doesn’t make me feel any less important.”

The appointment of Eileen Vélez Vega, P.E., as Puerto Rico’s first woman secretary of the Department of Transportation and Public Works made headlines across the island.

RR: Let’s transition to your current job. How did you become the Secretary of Transportation and Public Works for Puerto Rico?
EVV: I did not apply for this! But I had told my mom, probably 20 years ago, that someday, if I ever came back to Puerto Rico, because I had lived in the mainland United States for 11 years, I wanted to be the Secretary of Transportation. I told the same thing to a friend at a civil engineering event. After Governor Pierluisi was elected in November of 2020, that friend called me and said, send me your resume! I thought, you must be crazy!

RR: Be careful what you ask for, Eileen, right?
EVV: Yes, and I really did want the job. I interviewed with a whole panel representing the new administration and passed that first step, so the next step was to meet with the governor. He offered me the job and told me to go home and talk to my husband. So I did. My husband and I did a lot of soul searching that day. He has always been a great supporter. He said, “This is historic, and you’ve always wanted to do this. You have all these plans on how to improve Puerto Rico’s transportation. You should go for it!” So I went for it and here I am.

RR: What were your plans for Puerto Rico?
EVV: Since Hurricane Maria in 2017, we’ve had access to a lot of federal funds that we’ve never had before, so with this funding, we can really improve infrastructure. I told the governor during my interview, and this is something that I keep repeating, that Puerto Rico needs to focus on maintenance. There had never been a maintenance budget before, so only very little maintenance had ever been done. Now we have more than $200 million for maintenance. But I had to put a lot of effort into securing that budget and explaining why it was justified. We have already been able to accomplish a lot, but government work has a lot of procedures and bureaucracy.

‘I Am Going to Make the Best of It’

July 9, 2022, marked 10 years of cancer remission for Eileen Vélez Vega, P.E. At 29 years old and five months pregnant, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma. She had chemotherapy treatment during her pregnancy, causing her to lose her hair. While Vélez Vega had no hair, her healthy daughter was born in December 2010 with a full head of hair. She finished chemo after her daughter’s birth and was in remission for about nine months before the lymphoma returned.

Vélez Vega then had a stem cell transplant on July 9, 2012, the day she considers her rebirth. She’s been in remission ever since. While she took two years off work to recover and had to be away from her daughter for three months during that time, she had the full support of her parents, in-laws, and husband, and the motivation to become well for her daughter. She recognized that “this too shall pass” and still keeps this in mind when things get tough.

Active with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Vélez Vega is currently a volunteer for the organization’s First Connection Program, which pairs newly diagnosed patients with trained volunteers who have gone through similar experiences. She said, “I turned my experience into something really positive by helping others. I am going to make the best of it.”

RR: What did you think the job was going to be like compared to how it actually is?
EVV: I knew it was going to be a lot of work, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I did not expect the amount of bureaucracy and the slowness of the processes, especially coming from private industry where time is money. So I get very frustrated, but I also make sure that I do not skip any steps of the process that could cause problems later. And I’ve also had to change the mindset of the team from one of limitations, because the department hasn’t had funding for so long, to one of understanding that their work is super important to Puerto Rico’s transportation and the quality of life of our people.

RR: Tell me more about the maintenance funding.
EVV: Federal funding had never been available for maintenance in Puerto Rico before. We are a territory, not a state, so we don’t get the same funding as a state. There is a different allocation formula for Puerto Rico. We have FEMA funding for emergency response, but the maintenance budget will let us do permanent work. And we are getting funding from the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (“the Infrastructure Bill”) and that is helping a lot. For example, there are seven agencies under my department, the Department of Motor Vehicles being one of them.
By the way, my signature is on all of the licenses now, and my cousins who are getting their first licenses think that is really cool! But with the Infrastructure Bill, we were able to apply for a grant for the DMV. We have a lot of opportunities now for additional funds that we didn’t have before.

RR: What is your greatest achievement as secretary so far?
EVV: I think my biggest achievement has been to actually secure funds for the department. The Department of Transportation and Public Works was created with the Puerto Rico Constitution 70 years ago. But without a budget, we cannot do what we were constitutionally created to do! I will feel even better, though, when more projects are completed. We are still in the programming phase of many projects, getting contracts signed and started. Also, when I started, there was no federal grants management office. We do receive federal funding, such as from FEMA, and now we have even more federal funding, but there was no office to make sure the funds were obligated. So I created the federal grants management office. I’d like to leave things better for whoever comes next. The department had suffered for so many years without funds and structure. I had to start from ground zero and build it back up. Some days are harder than others!

Secretary Vélez Vega on-site as a road crew works. Improving pavement so it is marked with illumination and without potholes is one of her goals. Credit: DTOP

RR: Let’s talk about that. What is the most challenging part of the position?
EVV: Other than the administrative parts, which you can always get through, I would say getting used to being a public figure, and the media attacks that come with that, is the biggest challenge. I used to read all of the negative comments about me on social media. I was thinking that I am coming into office with this great positive attitude and background and everybody is going to love me. Oh, the hell with that! No, it feels like everybody hates me. After a year and a half in office, I’ve learned not to read all the comments and stay positive. And we are working on improving our communications with the citizens, publishing everything so they know what we are working on. But I recognize that it doesn’t matter what I do or what we do as a department, we’re not going to make everybody happy. That’s just part of the job.

RR: Has anything helped prepare you for this public role?
EVV: There have also been attacks on how I look. But I’m not self-conscious. I’ve lost my hair three times (see sidebar)! My cancer journey has actually helped me be able to take these attacks and have a really thick skin. Yeah, I don’t think I could have done this if I had not gone through my cancer journey because I wouldn’t be as strong as I am now.

RR: I want to ask about your mental health. Do you have a safe space to vent or recharge?
EVV: I have an amazing team that I brought with me to the department from years of working in industry. And they are all women, which I did not plan, but they are all women! They left their jobs to join me. They decided that they were going to change the world alongside me. And they believed that I was going to be a great leader. I also have my husband. He filters out all the negative comments and doesn’t let me see them! And my parents and brother. We go to the west side of the islands to visit them when we can, and I separate from everything at work, well as much as possible because you’re never really off. So they are all my safe space.

RR: What advice do you have for women who aspire to such leadership positions as yours?
EVV: I believe our diversity is needed in all the places where important decisions are being made, so get involved. I recommend getting involved in professional organizations that will increase your visibility. Get involved strategically and volunteer with organizations that are specifically related to what you want to do and go for. Think about what you want to achieve to decide where to spend your time. And grow your network as much as you can. Oh, and speak up for what you want to do! I did that, and I didn’t think it was going to get me here, but here I am.

RR: When you leave this position, what is the one thing you’d like to see accomplished for Puerto Rico?
EVV: Oh my God, I want to see no potholes! And the pavement is working and marked with illumination. Complete streets here in Puerto Rico!

RR: Awesome! Do you have any final words?
EVV: Take care of yourself. If we are not healthy, then nothing happens. And family is important. We need strong support. That has helped me a lot.

About the Producer

Alice Orrell (she/her), P.E., joined SWE in 1997 as a collegiate member. She is a past Region J governor, from the period when SWE had U.S.-based regions. She holds a BSME from the University of Vermont, an MBA from the University of Washington, and is a licensed professional engineer in Washington state. She currently works at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, where her research focuses on wind as a distributed energy resource.