Faces of CAP: Challenge accepted

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CAP employee Jennifer Jia rafting on Colorado River

Editor’s note: CAP employees have unique backgrounds and experiences, shaping us as an organization and reflecting the diverse communities we serve. June 23 is International Women in Engineering Day, an opportunity to recognize women in the field and encourage growth within the profession.

Jennifer Jia joined CAP in 2014, bringing 25 years of experience in water-focused civil engineering.

Jennifer Jia, senior reliability engineer, isn’t afraid of a good challenge. She moved to the United States from China, alone. She earned both her master’s and PhD in four years in a non-native language. She works in an extremely difficult and male-dominated field. And, most importantly for Arizonans, she helps bring water to the desert.

Jia grew up in China, one of four children. She said she grew up knowing she wanted to be an engineer, so she went to college and earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. She was assigned a job at the Beijing Institute Research Center where she worked on the Three Gorges Dam project.

“At the time, it was the biggest dam in the world,” said Jia. “I liked the work, but I worked there nine years, and the dam wasn’t done. I wanted to do work that I could see completed.”

It was time for a change. At 31, Jia decided to come to the US for school, so unbeknownst to her family, she took steps to do just that. She took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and did exceptionally well. She applied to graduate school at Clemson University and was accepted.

Jennifer Jia and group in China
Jennifer Jia hiking next to the Colorado River
Jennifer Jia skiing with her daughter

“After I took the GRE and got accepted to Clemson, I still had to get a full-ride scholarship to get a visa,” said Jia. “That was the hardest part.”

Challenging, but Jia did it! It was time to tell her family and make her first trip to the US. She landed in Los Angeles before heading to South Carolina to start school. She had done very well on her exams and felt prepared but faced another unexpected challenge.

“Americans tend to run words together, so although I’d studied English and had really good scores on my exams, I didn’t understand anything, especially the homework,” said Jia. “Every day after school, I would go to an American student and ask what the homework was. It took me a while.”

Another challenge accepted and accomplished. A mere four years later, Jia had finished both her master’s and PhD in civil engineering. After graduating, Jia found herself in familiar territory – water. She started working for consultant firms, specializing in water, a field she had grown quite fond of. Her work was primarily computer modeling.

“Most civil engineers focus on structures that are well defined, something where you look at the code and that’s it,” said Jia. “But water is different. Every floodplain is different. Every river is different. You cannot just apply code. That’s why I like water.”

After several years in consulting, Jia realized that she wanted to apply her knowledge … to get into the field and solve problems rather than running models and sitting behind a desk. So, in 2014 she joined CAP as a reliability engineer. As a reliability civil engineer, she focuses on the civil parts of the CAP system – canals, bridges, siphons, pools and pipelines. She performs inspections and assessments, completes root cause failure analysis, participates in capital projects, develops scopes of work for civil asset maintenance, supports cathodic protection systems and more.

Jennifer Jia with other CAP employees
Jennifer Jia inspecting CAP equipment
Jennifer Jia working with other CAP employees

“We solve problems through engineering, but we also are preventive and proactive through condition assessments,” said Jia. “We work hard to ensure the system is reliable and cost effective.”

She has been a major driver for some changes at CAP.  One of those has been the move to GIS-driven and supported inspections and other field work. When Jia joined CAP, that work was done with paper and cameras.

“Now, we go out with tablets or smart phone and are able to upload images and inspection reports immediately,” said Jia. “Now we have seven years of digitized data that is synched and can be accessed easily by anyone on the team at any time. We can see trends and more effectively manage the reliability of the system.”

The work is challenging and difficult, but Jia says she enjoys it. And, although she’s often the only woman in the field, she says it’s made easier to be surrounded by supportive professionals.

“I have excellent relationships with everyone in the field,” said Jia. “I am a member of the team and people not only support me, but accept me for who I am.”

In addition to a rewarding and challenging career, Jia also has found time to embrace other challenges in her life. She has been married for 23 years and raised her daughter, Megan, who recently finished college. Jia travels frequently and on one trip to China was able to show her daughter the now-completed Three Gorges Dam.

Jennifer Jia sightseeing in China with her daughter
Jennifer Jia sightseeing with her daughter

“On the ship, the tour guide was explaining everything about the dam in Chinese and although my daughter speaks Chinese, it was easier for her to understand in English, so I was translating for her. But I was not just telling her the surface stuff, but going into the details that I knew from working on it,” said Jia. “The guide asked me how I knew so much about the dam and I told him I’d worked on it, so he let me explain it for all the English speakers.”

Seeing the project she had worked on for so long was rewarding, she said. She was also able to see specifically what was implemented and what was not.

Away from work, Jia is active and enjoys golfing, hiking, skiing and most recently river rafting the Grand Canyon.

“I had always wanted to raft down the river, but never had so when I had an opportunity to do a 16-day trip, I just did it,” said Jia. “They were all worried about me because I hadn’t even camped before, but I just jumped in with both feet. I’m an engineer, so just show me one time and I can do anything.”

Although she has been in the US for 30 years, Jia says she still faces challenges every day, with language, culture and new experiences. But she doesn’t shy away from them.

“What I have learned is that you can’t be afraid to face challenges. Be assertive, feel confident about your knowledge and have the courage to speak up,” said Jia. “Yes, the more you speak up the more chance you have to make mistake, but you realize that’s true for everyone and next time you can do better.”

Challenge accepted!

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