By Karla Marshall
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, March 5, 2013 – Female 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.
“I get bored working on the 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 was 12 when she and her family moved to California.
“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.
Pervez said learning English was her first obstacle. Fortunately, she said, her education started in Pakistan.
“I had to take English beginning in the sixth grade.” By the time Pervez moved to the United States, she had the basics.
“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 degrees, but none did.
“Somehow, each of us chose a different path. I was good at science and math,” said Pervez, who took an electronics course during her freshman year at high school.
“Taking the class was not my idea but I enjoyed it and stayed with it.”
Pervez’s electronics teacher became a trusted mentor, as did her high school guidance counselor.
“They are the reason I became an engineer.” Pervez deployed to Kandahar Airfield from the Corps of Engineers’ Los Angeles District.
“I am very blessed and have always been surrounded by people who have my best interest at heart,” she said. “They were compassionate but never hesitated to tell me what I needed to hear -- even if I didn’t want to listen.”
Pervez said it’s 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. They are people I trust and can speak freely to regarding my personal and professional goals.”
Pervez has achieved some significant goals, but is not yet finished, she said. During the last year, she passed her professional engineer exam and became a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] Accredited Professional.
“I am now pursuing an online master’s degree in business administration when I’m not working.”
At the Corps’ 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,” Pervez said. 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?’ I got to teach Afghans electric fundamentals and safety and performed construction site inspections and learned at the same time.”
To Pervez, it’s the challenges and accomplishments that drive her to success. Her current challenge is learning about high-voltage electrical 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 -- my 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 explained. “Sometimes it means listening to a person, acknowledging their thoughts and ideas and just letting them 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, Pervez acknowledged. Yet, she noted, persistence is the key to success.
“Don’t ever give up!” she said. “Follow your heart. Ask a lot of questions and if you still don’t understand, ask again.”