(Editor’s note: This is the second installment in the Builders of Bulwark series, crafted to showcase the personalities and backgrounds of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District personnel. Through the eyes of a first-year district public affairs specialist, the series will use interviews to give a behind-the-scenes look at the people who form the Corps.)
FORT NORFOLK, Va. – I noticed Leah Weaver right away, although never having met before. Her tweed jacket and conservative pumps made her appear almost a tad haughty in a public school. The gym was crammed with folding tables lined with teams of students, elbow-to-elbow. A handful of unruffled teachers orbited, dispensing attempts at order.
The distinctive cafeteria smell served to remind us we were far removed from our office cubicles for the day.
Weaver hovered by the scarlet-swathed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers table, situated on the opposing side of the gaggle. Her eyes darted to the energetic assembly across the floor, revealing her preference at that moment was not small talk with me.
The countdown began, six… five… four…
At the sound of the buzzer, collective enthusiasm and ingenuity erupted and activity spilled over from one table to the next. In a flash, 100 fourth- and fifth-graders became budding engineers: eyeing up materials, sketching out plans and debating – to the extend they knew – physics. The cyclone of educated ideas, guesses and oodles of masking tape sucked up the tweed jacket, with Weaver in it.
It was last year’s Newport News Public Schools engineering-design challenge, a Thunderdome of primary-school STEM. And Weaver was serving in the role of engineering expert, representing Norfolk District, charged with offering advice and recommendations to contestants.
The teams were required to create model-scale floating bridges. The bridge that held the most weight in sand while staying afloat would be the winner. Water – this is Weaver’s specialty as an engineer in the district’s hydraulics and hydrology section.
I watched the activity intensify. The sound of cutting, taping and talking through decisions roared and rumbled the room. Teams high-fived and flung up their arms in celebration. Some children shuffled at their table, like their little bodies could barely contain the stimuli.
“These kids here, this was me,” Weaver said while scanning the crowd for her next protégé. “This is what I loved when I was their age and I get it; I totally get how excited they are to solve this challenge.”
The original dissimilarities between her and the students dissolved. Weaver was nearly indiscernible in the chaos, another player in this academic wrangle. Her affect of bubbling excitement and observable delight merged with that of the motivated minors. Intensely involved, she crouched to eye level, then sprung up and broadly smiled before blithely flitting through rows of tables, eagerly offering the same zealous assistance to student after student.
They assertively sought her attention and help like a child seeks a parent. She gently and patiently guided the young minds at work, at times, using her hands to create invisible displays. She’d ask questions, lowering her brow in concentration and nodding as they’d talk through the answer. Her praise was quick and undiluted throughout the competition’s entirety.
Her interactions were emotional as they were practical.
I detected some invisible tether was unifying Weaver to the pint-size competitors toiling toward their goal. In spirit, she just seemed like a taller, more knowledgeable version of the elementary engineers hovering around her.
It was fascinating to watch.
Fast forward a few months.
Sitting in the Norfolk District library two weeks ago, I recorded Weaver.
This was my opportunity to ask about that day at the school.
She sat down and put on the headphones, as cheerful and smiley as she was previously.
We chatted a bit before I began gathering some background information.
Where did you go to college? University of Delaware and Old Dominion University.
What kind of work do you do? Floodplain management, coastal engineering, stuff with water.
How did you end up at the Norfolk District? An internship with the federal Pathways Program after obtaining a master’s degree.
I asked a follow-up question regarding her course to the district. Her reply? “There are things in your heart, instilled in childhood that are meant to carry you through. If you listen to your heart, it’s kind of hard to mess up the plan that you’re meant to do.”
We both fell silent for a moment, like the words she’d said just materialized actual weight.
“Everything just fell in line for me to be here,” Weaver said while trailing off a thought. “And I think it started when I was young.”
Upon hearing that statement, I asked Weaver pointblank what in her childhood made her want to become an engineer (even before finding out if she wanted to be an engineer as a child).
She began by talking about family. Her grandfather inspired her when she was very young with rousing stories and accounts from his career. For example, there was the time in the Army he worked on the country’s first torpedoes.
But, she stated, it was the puzzles and critical-thinking games they’d play that sparked her interest in objective analysis and evaluation. Her studies in school promoted her problem-solving passion.
Weaver exemplified her appetite for math in crescendo, “It’s probably the most rewarding discipline I’ve ever experienced – like, you don’t understand it, you don’t understand it, you don’t understand it and once you finally understand it…” she exhaled, “and there is so much joy. It’s so great.”
She laughed while recalling her delight during math competitions in elementary school. She shook her head side-to-side in amusement while compiling the checklist of engineer-like activities that occupied her youth.
Weaver was a young teenager when she attended engineering camp. As she said this, her voice dropped slightly and softened as she reminisced about the mentorship she received and the passion of women in the field. She aggregated toward others who craved creative solutions.
She entered college with a major in environmental engineering, but soon realized chemistry was not her strength. Not one to retreat, Weaver regrouped and redirected her efforts into civil engineering, stating she was “still super passionate about the environment and trying to figure out how to fit all these passions together.”
In 2011, she managed to put the pieces together. Like the puzzles from her childhood, the image of her future became clear during a visit to New Orleans, six years after Hurricane Katrina.
“Hearing about the levee that broke there, the damage, the loss of life…” she trailed off. “It just all seemed to be so preventable.”
Weaver again found a problem that needed solving. She said she decided water was going to be where she poured her skills and talents.
After graduating, she worked for a private company before pursuing her graduate degree in a water resources and engineering program.
With only a credit left to finish her degree, she took a mission trip to Mozambique. Initially, the excursion to Africa derailed completion and she said she began to question her decisions. But that uncertainty vanquished when she, once again, obeyed her inclinations.
“I felt like I was so far removed from school and the pressures of American life,” she said. “But my heart was still like, ‘No. I still want to do something with engineering and something with water.’”
At this point in our conversation, I constructed a – albeit weak – hypothesis as to why I sensed the bond between her and the children that day last year: There are creative kids who want to produce art; there are athletic kids who seek sports; and maybe, there are the engineering kids who want to problem-solve.
And if that’s the case, people like Weaver would be their inspiration, just like her grandfather and the women at engineering camp were to her.
Someone like Weaver, I felt, will always be looking for the next mountain – or ocean – to conquer. I was curious about her next endeavor and asked. In her response, she returned to that day at the competition.
“I want to do that again,” she said.
“Real-life application of STEM, even at a young age, would benefit so many children,” she added with conviction. “If we help children find their skills, talents and gifts, it could help them also find their passion. And once they do that, know what they love, they’ll be able to answer that question, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’”
She said she intends on working with the district’s outreach program to meet this goal.
So, Weaver – the lively problem-solver – has decided that similar to those in her own childhood, she’s going to help encourage a thirst for science, technology, engineering and math. And like her path to engineering, if she’s following her heart, there’s no way to mess up that plan.