Irene Lee
Irene Lee pauses at Mori Point, near Pacifica, Calif., during a trail improvement project with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

Charles Dickens' <i>A Tale of Two Cities</i> has nothing on Irene Lee's tale of a three-Corps career. In the San Francisco District project manager's travels, from college to today, each of her employing organizations has had "corps" in its name.

Lee was born in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and spoke Swatow as her first Chinese dialect. Her family came to the United States, sponsored by a church in Pontiac, Mich., when she was 12.

She recalls her first attempts to speak English in Michigan. "All I knew is what the other kids taught me. I thought I was saying nice things, but I was speaking only curse words. The kids all thought it was funny. It took me a while to catch on," she said.

Proving to be an excellent student, Lee graduated from the University of Michigan with a biology degree and a special interest in botany. After graduation, she joined the Peace Corps and served for two years in the Fiji Islands - as an elementary-school science teacher, volunteer assistant to nurses on weekend visits to patients, and helping design and build creek bridges.

"The Peace Corps was one of my best experiences...in a totally different environment from the U.S.," said Lee. "It helps you broaden your perspective on other people's way of life, other than being materialistic."

The Peace Corps experience whetted Lee's appetite to meet diverse people and explore other cultures. She took off for nine months of nonstop backpacking through a virtual United Nations: New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, India, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Germany and Greece - plus her native Hong Kong. "The best part was sampling all the different cultures' foods, meeting all the people, seeing different ways of life and different architecture," she said.

After almost nonstop travel through more than a dozen countries, Lee returned to her family in Michigan to begin her career. She saw no jobs for biologists, but the automotive industry was hiring, so she went to Oakland University at Rochester, Michigan for a mechanical-engineering degree. This also marked her first time with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as a summer hire in the Detroit District.

Upon receiving her engineering degree, Lee moved with her husband to Texas, and became a permanent employee at the USACE Fort Worth District. Two years later, she moved to an engineering position with the Sacramento District, where she worked for six years.

However, she still had an itch to explore and experience the world's cultures. In 2001, she accepted a U.S. Marine Corps offer to work in Okinawa, Japan, as a master planner, project engineer and project manager in military construction. "I was looking for something different. The work was good experience for me and my family, interacting with the culture."

After four years in Okinawa, Lee returned to the Sacramento District. In 2007, she moved to the San Francisco District as project manager for the Hamilton Field wetland restoration. "Having to deal with dredged sediment is new and exciting," Lee said. "It's exciting to see it transform in front of our eyes."

Asked what she finds most challenging about the project, Lee said, "trying to juggle the various interests, to mesh everything to make it seamless. We have a lot of really good team members - all have put their heart and soul into this project."

Whether at the Corps or at home, her heart is never far from nature, and she enjoys her hobbies of tropical botany and sustainable food sources. In Okinawa, she compiled a list of edible tropical and subtropical plants, along with a list of poisonous plants, which she presented to the Marine Corps. She's a member of California Rare Fruit Growers.

Nowadays, Lee spends nearly every Saturday doing volunteer plant restoration for the U.S. Park Service and participating in the Pacifica Beach Coalition Clean-Up. Her personal goal is "to convert my yard space to an edible oasis."

Irene Lee has demonstrated her personal, core commitments - to people, plants and culture - as well as her professional "Corps" commitments" - to the Peace Corps, the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16