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Taking Chances: An interview with Samantha Whettell
Kristen McGillivray, Western Canada Water
Asking Samantha (Sam) to be a part of this interview series was a no-brainer for me. Sam and I first met in 2015 at the Western Canada Water Annual Conference & Exhibition in Winnipeg. It was the first WCW Conference for both of us and since then, we’ve grown up through the Association together. Sam is the Manitoba Trustee of the Western Canada Water Environment Association and also plays a larger role in helping plan the WCW Conference when it is held in Winnipeg. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biosystems Engineering, Environmental Specialization from the University of Manitoba and currently works as a Water/Wastewater Engineer-in-Training at AECOM Canada Ltd.
Q. What was your first job after graduation? Did you learn anything that you couldn’t in a classroom?
A. As I approached graduation, my goal was to work in an environmental role at a consulting firm, but no one seemed to be hiring. I spoke with one of my professors, and he happened to know a Master’s student (shout out to Natalie Wilson) who knew of a former co-worker branching out on her own to do some consulting work and was looking for help. She ended up hiring me, so my first job after graduation was a one-year term position working on a community development plan for a First Nation. I think the first lesson that I learned outside of the classroom was the power of having a network. I wouldn’t have gotten that first job, and I wouldn’t be where I am today, if it hadn’t been for the people in my network helping me along the way.
Q. How have you built up your professional networks?
A. As mentioned, I quickly realized the value of having a network, but I didn’t have many opportunities to make connections at my first job. It was just myself and Barb, the engineer who hired me, which was great for learning, but tough for networking. However, she was on the planning committee for the 2015 Western Canada Water Conference and Exhibition, and she got me involved with the Planning Committee. It was a great introduction to the local water community and sparked my streak of saying yes to any volunteer opportunity that came my way. Since joining AECOM, I’ve worked hard to develop my professional network through joining different committees and boards. While attending networking events and conferences is a great way to connect with people, I’ve found it much easier to expand my network by joining the committees planning those events – that way you know someone before you even get to the event.
Working in Water
Q. What excites you most about working in the water industry?
A. Big picture, I love working in this industry because water is such an essential resource and the work we do has a tangible impact on our communities and the environment. In particular, I’m really excited about the advancement of technologies focused on nutrient recovery from wastewater. High nutrient levels in treated wastewater effluent can be detrimental to the receiving ecosystem, but these nutrients are highly valued in other industries, such as agriculture. I think the ability to extract these nutrients from wastewater and beneficially use them elsewhere is fantastic, and I look forward to more treatment plants utilizing this technology in the years to come.
Q. What brought you to your current job? What professional experience prepared you for the role you’re in?
A. As the one-year term of my first job was coming to a close, I began to think (read: panic) about my next steps. As I contemplated who I should contact about potential job openings, Barb shared that one of her former coworkers (who I had met through her) had recommended me for a job at AECOM. So technically Chris (Barb’s former co-worker, and my current co-worker) brought me to my current job. Once again, my network helped get me to where I am today. Since starting with AECOM, I’ve held the same “role” as a junior EIT. This role is super dynamic, and as I gain more experience, I take on more responsibility. Three years in, I still feel like I’m constantly learning, and all of the experience I’ve gained helps me navigate the next challenge.
Q. What advice do you have for women interested in becoming an Operator or Engineer?
A. My best advice would be, go for it! I know that doesn’t sound like overly helpful advice, but I think a few words of encouragement to just jump in will help get more women into these programs. Chances are, if you are even remotely interested in these roles, you’ll likely enjoy them and be able to find something that works for you. But you won’t know until you try. And there’s lots of time to seek out a mentor or research potential career paths once you’re in the program. Don’t overthink it!
Q. What’s your best advice for handling a mistake?
A. My best advice for handling a mistake is to own it. Nobody is expected to be perfect, and being arrogant enough to think otherwise could cause even more trouble than the mistake itself. We work in an industry where mistakes can be costly, even fatal. Upon discovering a mistake, my advice would be to let your supervisor/project manager/whoever else know as soon as possible. Taking the blame for your mistake shows that you are responsible and take your job seriously. Look at it as a learning opportunity and do your best to learn from your mistakes.
Q. Did you ever experience any uncertainty that this was the right career path for you?
A. Absolutely! Choosing to go into the Faculty of Engineering was a relatively easy decision for me because I enjoyed science and wanted to apply it in the real world. After entering engineering though, I struggled to have a clear vision of what I wanted to do after university. I had no idea what industry I wanted to go into or even what jobs opportunities were out there. I joined a student design group through the university to gain some experience, but I didn’t seem to fit in with the other engineering students – they all seemed to be interested in very technical design, and I wasn’t. However, I stuck to my gut and ended up at my current job at a consulting firm in the water industry and it has been a great fit. Since joining the workforce, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many engineers and learn about the diversity of their career paths, which has helped me realize that there isn’t one definition of what it means to be an engineer. While I still worry about not being technical enough, I feel much more confident that I’m on the right path.
Q. What do you think the key to being a leader is?
A. I think the key to being a leader is to inspire people. A true leader will motivate people and bring out the best in them. To me, becoming a manager is a job that is given to you, but becoming a leader is an attribute that you develop. It doesn’t matter how high up the ranks you are, no one can make you a leader – you become a leader. To become a leader, I think it’s important to focus less on yourself as an individual and more on what you can contribute to the whole.
Q. What advice would you give to your younger self?
A. This is a tricky question for me. I consider myself something of a recovering perfectionist, so I try not to dwell on the past. I wouldn’t change anything because it got me to where I am today, which I’m very thankful for. I was to give my younger self advice (or maybe just someone younger than me), I would say: Be confident in who you are and your abilities – stop doubting yourself! Don’t be afraid to take chances, you could end up somewhere really great, and the worst that could happen probably isn’t insurmountable. Worrying about the future gets you nowhere – if you put that time and energy into creating change, as opposed to worrying, you could move mountains. Okay, this is actually just advice I should be telling my current self…