“I was a tomboy growing up. I took every science course our schools had, and I just loved them—learning about how things worked and why,” Kansas City District Civil Engineer Susan Abbott said.
Abbott has been with the Kansas City District, U.S. Corps of Engineers for just under 19 years, and her life story is anything but ordinary.
As part of Women’s History Month 2022, the Kansas City District is telling unique stories about female team members who have made a name for themselves and continue to make a difference in the world.
Abbott’s story started in her childhood with a fascination for science.
“As a kid, I spent a lot of my time doing observations outside in the woods, observing plants and animals, really anything I could look at and take notes on,” Abbott said.
She loved learning but had a hard time deciding what she wanted to study in college. At one point, she wanted to be a pilot, but that dream was out of reach growing up in the back half of the 20th century.
“Back in the day in high school, I was the first woman to ever take aviation and pass,” Abbott said. “I wanted to become a pilot, but people told me no, if I wanted anything to do with airplanes, I’d have to be a stewardess.”
She knew that wasn’t what she wanted so she went to college. After one year, she dropped out because she still couldn’t choose a career path that would keep her interested throughout her life.
Over the next ten years, she got married and had three of her four kids. She loved being a stay-at-home mom because it gave her invaluable time with her kids, but around age 30, she had a realization.
“I had just sat through a whole show of ‘Sesame Street,’ and I thought, oh my gosh, I could be doing something else but instead I just sat through a kids show,” Abbott said. “Two days later I enrolled in night school.”
This began her journey to federal service.
Just keep pushing: the long road of education
When Abbott started college again, she decided to try studying education because she loved kids. After getting halfway through her schooling, she decided it wasn’t the right fit.
“I got some guidance counseling and they suggested going back to my true love of science,” Abbott said. “So, I started by going back to baby math—I don’t even know if it was algebra.”
Her teacher was great and helped her understand the logic behind math. When she started doing more complex problems, she decided to pursue engineering.
After working part-time for a government organization while also taking care of four kids, Abbott received an Associate Degree in Engineering in 1999 and immediately started working toward a bachelor’s degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She graduated from UMKC with a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering in 2003—she was 44 years old.
Her USACE story started almost immediately after graduating when someone from the Kansas City District approached her at an engineering competition.
“She said she was looking to hire someone who was about to graduate to inspect dams, and I was like that sounds really interesting,” Abbot said. “I got hired as an intern and fell in love with what the operations branch does in the Kansas City District.”
After 19 years with USACE, Abbott now serves as the dam inspection coordinator and volunteers for as many emergency disaster response missions as she can. She said she loves her job, in part because of the responsibility she has.
“At USACE, you are given programs and they are your programs. You can mold them into what you want them to be, and I think that is just so great,” Abbott said. “I take ownership for the programs I have, and I am proud of the programs we have.”
Her passion for the mission is evident to those around her.
“Susan is an extremely valuable employee to Operations Division and to the Kansas City District from both a professional and personal perspective,” Abbott’s supervisor, Maintenance Engineering Section Chief Clint Mason said. “She is always ready to share information with her colleagues whenever she is assigned to a team or when they come to her with questions. Additionally, she cares a great deal for her coworkers and always goes the extra mile to ensure everyone is included and feels a part of the team, especially on the many dam safety inspections that she leads each year.”
Many of her team members have given her a nickname because of her mindfulness.
“For a long time, one of the interns called me “Ma” and then the folks I work with started calling me “Ma” regardless of their age,” Abbott said. “In a way, it is a compliment because… they know I have their back and I care about all of them.”
Abbott’s favorite part about her job is that she feels like she truly gets to help people.
“It is the people you’re helping, either directly or indirectly, in your day-to-day job or in emergency response that brings a lot of personal satisfaction,” Abbott said.
As the dam inspection coordinator, Abbott encounters many people and likes to offer advice to anyone looking for it.
“I hope [everyone] realizes there is nothing you can’t do if you really want to do it. It is just a matter of being persistent and finding the right fit,” Abbott said. “It is never too late to go back to school. If there is something out there that you want to do, go out, get the degree in whatever it is and never give up.”
Abbott said she is close to retirement but continues to work hard every day for her people and for herself, and she wants to thank her husband and kids for supporting her every step of the way.
“I found the perfect job for me. It’s got variety, I am never bored,” Abbott said. “It has been fantastic, and I wouldn’t have changed anything [about my story].”