By Karla Marshall
Afghanistan Engineer District
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Women electrical engineers are few in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Shafak Pervez should know--she is one of them. She is also the kind of woman who thrives on new experiences that engage her mind and help other people simultaneously.
For Pervez, 34, learning new things and staying busy is a priority and that's the reason she joined the USACE team. "I get bored working on same type of projects and was looking for something that would provide variety and freedom to move around. I love the type of work USACE does - we are everywhere!"
Born in Pakistan, Pervez immigrated with her family to California when she was 12. "I went to middle school and high school in West Sacramento," she said. "And then on to Sacramento State University where I earned my electrical engineering degree.
Learning English was her first obstacle. Fortunately, that education started in Pakistan. "I had to take English beginning in the 6th grade," she said and by the time she moved to the United States at the beginning of her 8th grade year, she had the basics down. "I knew the alphabet and some simple phrases. My mom helped a lot because she earned a master's degree in Pakistan and needed to know English for her degree."
Her mother also encouraged each of the family's five children to pursue medical doctor degrees, but none did.
"Somehow each of us chose a different path. I was good at science and math," explained Pervez who took an electronics course during her freshman year of high school. "Taking the class was not my idea, but I enjoyed it and stayed with it."
Pervez' electronics teacher became a trusted mentor as did her high school guidance counselor. "They are the reason I
became an engineer," said Pervez, who deployed to Kandahar Airfield from the USACE Los Angeles District. "I am very blessed and have always been surrounded by people who have my best interest at heart. They were
compassionate but never hesitated to tell me what I needed to hear even if I didn't want to listen."
It is her mentors -- some engineers, others not--who have been a constant in her adult life. "I cannot remember a time when I didn't have a mentor to turn to," Pervez explained. "They are people I trust and can speak freely to regarding my personal and professional goals."
Pervez has achieved significant professional goals, but is not yet finished. During the last year, she passed her Professional Engineer exam and became a LEED Accredited Professional. "I am now pursuing an on-line master's degree in business administration when I'm not working," she said.
At the Afghanistan Engineer District-South, Pervez reviews project designs and provides technical services to the district's field offices throughout south and west Afghanistan. She arrived in Afghanistan in June 2012, but this is not her first deployment.
"I deployed the first time in 2010 for one year and was the lead electrical engineer with the quality assurance branch," said Pervez. Although she did not deploy to fill that role, her work ethic, experience and skill led to a recommendation for the job and ultimately an offer. "How could I have said, 'no,' she exclaimed. "I got to teach Afghans electric fundamentals and safety and performed construction site inspections and learned at the same time."
To Pervez, it is the challenge and accomplishment that drive her to success. Her current challenge is learning about high voltage electric systems so that she can be the best at her job.
"To my peers, I'm the subject matter expert, but there is so much that I do not know because high voltage is a specialized field and I have little experience in it." Pervez acknowledges that it is difficult to admit she doesn't know some things and will have to get back to her coworkers with answers. But, she says, "When faced with something I don't know - first step is to acknowledge that I don't know it and second is to go learn it."
That attitude is why Pervez embodies the 2013 National Women's History Month theme: "Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics."
"I like to focus on smaller groups, people who are around me," she shared. "Sometimes it means listening to a person, acknowledging her thoughts and ideas and just letting her know that someone cares. Small things make a huge difference. I give of myself freely and often. I always make myself available to friends and anyone who may need my help,"
It can be difficult for women in engineering career fields, but Pervez said that to be successful, persistence is the key. "Don't ever give up! Follow your heart. Ask a lot of questions and if you still don't understand, ask again."