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From the Peace Corp to Environmental Engineer: A Q&A with Patricia Drummey-Steigel

Written by: Allison Preston

Patricia Drummey-Stiegel graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2003 with a Bachelor's degree in civil engineering. From there she focused on environmental engineering in the Peace Corps, attended graduate school, and was hired by an environmental consulting firm. Current Environmental Engineering Senior, Claire Nauman, spoke with Drummey-Stiegel about service, school, and careers. 

Q: Can you tell me about yourself and your career? 

A: I work for Hazen and Sawyer which is an environmental consulting firm based in New York City and I work out of their Raleigh, North Carolina office. I’ve been there for about ten years now. I came from graduate school and before that, I was in the Peace Corps.

Q: You went to Notre Dame for your Bachelor's degree, what did you study?

A: I studied Civil Engineering with an environmental concentration.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to be an engineer and what drew you towards that?

A: In high school, I was deciding between being a housewife and volunteering because that seemed to irritate people when I said I my goal was to be a housewife, and being an engineer because I really liked math. I thought civil engineering sounded like a broad field and that maybe I could help people in developing countries with things like irrigation issues because that would be water related. 

So I knew coming into Notre Dame that I wanted to be a civil engineer. I looked at a couple other options, aerospace also sounded really cool because I also wanted to be an astronaut but when I was told my vision would not let me be an astronaut I decided civil engineering was the right path. Part of it was one of my professors, Jerry Marley. For our very first civil engineering class, he has all of us young civil engineers over to his house and cooked burgers for us and we got to hang out, so we developed a unique comradery that lasted throughout our time at Notre Dame. It didn’t really help me choose civil engineering but it helped keep me there. 

I do remember a lot of people freshmen year saying, “Oh that’s funny, another nice little girl engineer but you’ll be business before this is all over. Part of me just got really irritated and wanted to prove people wrong. Yes, I am a nice girl and I like to have fun but I also like engineering, I like to do hard work, I like the math, I like the science and the problem solving that comes along with engineering.

Q: What was your time like at Notre Dame?

A: I lived in McGlinn Hall, I had a great group of friends there. I was also in the marching band so that was a huge part of my life at Notre Dame. I also studied in Monterey, Mexico, so I had done summer school and re-arranged my schedule so I could go to Monterey. It was definitely an eye-opening experience being in a different country, a different culture, and I felt like I learned a lot.

Q: What drew you to the Peace Corps after graduating?Stiegel Peace Corp

A: I always knew I wanted to do something for others less fortunate. I came to the realization that I was fortunate and it was my responsibility to help those who did not have as much as I did. Part of that was my faith, I was raised Catholic and practiced Catholicism while I was here and in the Peace Corps, so I had that desire to make the world a better place. It sounds cliché but I think that’s really what got me there. And I still think even though my career has changed directions and I’m doing something different and domestic, for a company that’s for-profit, we still help make the world a better place. We’re still doing things that protect public health, protect the environment, and things that are important to do.

Q: What was it like transitioning from the Peace Corps to graduate school? (Drummey-Stiegel attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

A: From the Peace Corps to school was hard but it was like a breath of fresh air. I had classes again which I liked in college but I liked it even more in graduate school. I just appreciated the classes a lot more, I appreciated the structure and having information fed to me, and also knowing I have to do X, Y, and Z to graduate. I liked that structure after having the lack of structure in the Peace Corps. I also wanted to continue my work in international development and looking at job requirements, almost all the jobs required a Master’s degree.

And then transitioning into a job, there is a lot of structure in terms of having to get things done but sometimes you do not get as much direction on how to do it, so that was a very different situation from both Peace Corps and Graduate School. It was definitely a transition of figuring out how to thrive in that environment. And I think a lot of people go through that too when you are working a typical nine-to-five job.

Q: What projects are you working on? 

A: I have two projects I just finished up. A lot of my role is leading a design team and putting together plans and specifications for bid documents but then a contractor will bid on the job and then build it. 

One is in Durham, North Carolina, and I live in Durham so it is really cool to work in my own backyard. That was a water treatment plant upgrade so we are doing various improvements to treat the wastewater better and more reliably.

The other job is in Greensborough, North Carolina, which is also really close. That project is going to bring their total nitrogen to a T-5, and involve upgrading all their aeration bases and other improvements. That’s a fun job that I’ll be excited to see through construction.

Q: What has been most rewarding to you in your various jobs?

A: I really like when we accomplish something as a team and I think there are several examples of that. Finishing the aqueduct in the PeaceCorps with that community and those people that worked so hard through eight months of backbreaking labor, having it done and having water was a huge accomplishment. But I also feel that way about some of the projects we do now. Finishing this job in Durham, this is the biggest job I’ve ever managed and having it completed successfully is a great feeling. There’s literally one-hundred different people who have worked on that job with me and it is so cool that we are all able to work together and create something that is going to be great for the client.

Q: Do you think your time at Notre Dame impacted your future and some of the decision you made?

A: Absolutely. Being in the Peace Corps was a direct result of going to Notre Dame. You’re surrounded by like-minded people that believe service is important and their faith is typically very important. So to me, it was fairly easy to make the decision to do Peace Corps because I was surrounded by people who understood my drive and reasoning to do it.

Q: Is there any advice you wish you had heard as a high school student or as a college student?

A: No matter which path you choose you should always try to make the best of it. Sometimes you choose, or sometimes you end up on a path that you didn’t think you wanted to be on but always try to make the best of it. You’ll get back on the path you want to be on.

Patricia Drummey-Stiegel is a 2003 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She served in the U.S. Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic where she designed and constructed a gravity-flow water system. She is also a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She now works as a project manager at Hazen and Sawyer in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

Claire Nauman with host Ma Hannah in Cameroon on an Engineers without Borders trip in January 2017.

Claire Nauman is a senior environmental engineering student at the University of Notre Dame. She has traveled to Cameroon to work with Engineers Without Borders and she launched her own website, "Engineering for the Soul" to help young people learn more about the relationship between faith and engineering.