KANSAS CITY, Mo. — At just 16 years old Gladys Figueroa Toro graduated from high school and entered the most challenging and formative period of her life — college. The USACE, Kansas City District river engineer recounted her experience at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez.
“That was a very tough university, at least for me. It has a very long curriculum — it takes six years to actually graduate from an undergrad there,” Figueroa Toro said.
According to her, the time commitment wasn’t the only thing that made the university so difficult.
“It is not the type of university where you just go there, sit, learn and pass the exam,” Figueroa Toro said. “You have to learn not only to be smart, you [also] have to be what we call ‘street smart’, [meaning] you have to learn how to get your own resources to pass classes and understand the material.”
Even getting into classes posed a challenge. Figueroa Toro recalled having to wait in long lines and sometimes even camp outside to get a singular class. Despite all these obstacles, she prevailed a stronger woman.
“Graduating from that college actually helped me with my personal and professional life because I know that if I can’t solve a problem, I will do whatever I have to do to find the right person to help me get the job done,” Figueroa Toro said.
Figueroa Toro graduated from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez in 2016 and moved to Texas to attend Texas Tech for her master’s in water resources with emphasis in geographic information systems.
She described getting her master's program as "easy-going," that is, until Hurricane Maria hit her homeland in 2018.
“The night the hurricane struck, I did not sleep at all,” Figueroa Toro said. “I spent quite a few days not knowing anything. I had no communication with them whatsoever and it was a hard time for all of us, not knowing what was going to happen [or] how bad the situation really was.”
It was after communication was restored with her family and Puerto Rico received aid from the federal government that Figueroa Toro decided to pursue a career in federal service. She wanted to help make a difference for people like USACE and other federal agencies did for her.
During her last year of her master's program she applied to work with USACE and was placed in the Kansas City District, eager to make a difference.
“I am waiting for that opportunity to work in disasters and be able to help out because I know that at the time when I was still in college, we actually needed help, and if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know how things would have gone,” Figueroa Toro said.
In the three years she has been with the Kansas City District, her drive to make a difference is present in her work.
“Gladys consistently provides high quality engineering products and can be counted on to execute tasks in a timely manner and within budget,” Kansas City District Supervisory Civil Engineer of Hydraulics Mike Chapman said. “In addition to her work, she works well in a team environment by listening to others, seeking help from more experienced engineers and technicians as needed, and providing input to discussions as warranted.”
When asked what she is most proud of during her time with the Kansas City District, she said it could be the different projects she completed with her team, or it could be the small successes where she pushed herself outside her comfort zone.
“I got on a helicopter [during the 2019 flood fight] and I was really scared ... but it was a really good experience,” Figueroa Toro said. “I was like, oh my gosh, I cannot believe that my job gave me the opportunity to get on a helicopter and actually see what was going on firsthand. It was amazing.”
The Kansas City District is proud to have personnel like Figueroa Toro who actively strive to produce high quality products that help the surrounding community.
“We value diversity among our workforce, but we specifically want to highlight our Hispanic employees and recognize the important part they play in the Kansas City District’s success,” Kansas City Deputy District Engineer for Program and Project Management Bryan Smith said. “We celebrate their unique experiences and embrace diversity because without them, our approach to our missions would not be complete.”
As Figueroa Toro reflected on Hispanic Heritage Month and her three years with the Kansas City District, she believes Hispanic Heritage can be celebrated year-round, and that celebration can start with a conversation.
“Hispanics are very proud of where they come from. If you get someone talking about where they are from, they are going to be smiling and they are going to try and include you in everything,” Figueroa Toro said. “We are very proud people, and we are always willing to share.”