Managing projects and clients, lifting others up and serving the community
Photography by Sonshine Portrait Design
I grew up in Kickapoo, the youngest of five children born to Robert and Carol Schmitt. My dad was a laborer; my mom was a legal secretary, township supervisor and church secretary. Without question, my parents were the biggest influence on me. My dad never knew a stranger and always helped those in need. My mom was always there for us. They raised us to work hard and take care of our families.
I graduated near the top of my class at Academy of Our Lady/Spalding Institute. Math was always my favorite subject—I wanted to be a math teacher from the time I was in first grade. I attended Eastern Illinois University and received a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics education. After graduation, the job market was tight, and I could not find a job. I had been working as a landscaper for CJL/Kelch Landscaping during summers, so I continued my job with them. Over the winter months, I was a substitute teacher at local schools.
The spring after my graduation, a cousin recommended that I go back to school for a civil engineering degree. Because I liked math and science, that seemed like a good option. I attended Illinois Central College for a year to complete the necessary pre-engineering and science classes. I then transferred to Bradley University to complete my Bachelor of Science in civil engineering. While attending Bradley, I had an opportunity to co-op at P.J. Hoerr. Looking back, working at P.J. Hoerr was a great experience for my career, because it gave me a contractor’s prospective on roadway construction projects. Some days, I even worked as a laborer because I had a laborer’s card from working in landscaping. After graduation, I went to work for Hanson Engineers, now Hanson Professional Services, and have been working here for 21 years.
Describe your early years as an engineer and career path at Hanson.
When I started at Hanson, there were just two of us working on roadway and site design projects. I remember working on three different roadway projects. Roadway projects typically take a long time to complete, so it was exciting when the first one was actually being constructed three years later. I was the only female engineer in the office for a long time. I was accepted by my coworkers and clients, and never felt pushback being a woman in a male-dominated field.
My boss did a great job teaching me how to be an engineer and introducing me to clients. When he took another job, I only had three years of experience, but I took the opportunity to start managing projects and clients. This was an interesting position to be in, because I was not yet a licensed engineer; more experienced engineers had to seal the plans for the projects I managed. In 2007, I was promoted to regional vice president in charge of the Peoria office. I managed the office through this leadership transition. I continue to manage a wide variety of projects and clients that range from township bridge replacements to multimillion-dollar roadway reconstruction projects. Last year, I was elected to the board of directors for Hanson Professional Services.
It’s rare today for someone to be with the same company for as long as you have been with Hanson. To what do you attribute this longevity?
Hanson—and specifically the Peoria office—is a great place to work. I have had many opportunities to grow and have worked on a wide range of projects. Also, the team in the Peoria office makes my job easier. I really enjoy working with clients to find solutions to challenging problems, and the people I work with are excellent engineers who provide quality design solutions for our projects.
I also attribute my longevity to my wonderful husband, Tom, and my five kids. They support me in my career and understand that I cannot always be home at 5:00pm.
Please list and reflect upon your major accomplishments of recent years. What are you most proud of in your career?
My major accomplishments in recent years include managing two federally funded Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) projects. In order for our clients to receive the federal funds, these projects must go from concept to construction in half the normal time. The first project was the Warehouse District reconstruction for the City of Peoria. We were able to work with the city and community members to provide the infrastructure needed to support the potential transformation of the Warehouse District.
This project, combined with the Washington Street project, provided many design challenges because of the elevation difference between Washington and Adams streets and the complications of providing Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant access to all the older buildings. Since the completion of these infrastructure projects, the area has thrived, with many new housing and commercial developments. Our team is proud of the work they did for the community, and it has turned out to be a great success story for Peoria.
The second TIGER project is the Multimodal Corridor Enhancement (MCORE) project in Champaign-Urbana. This was a partnership between the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, the City of Champaign, the City of Urbana and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The $46.9 million MCORE project represents a significant investment in public infrastructure that will bring streets to a state of good repair while enhancing connections between the cities’ downtown centers and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. The project is in the heart of Campustown. The project team’s members worked together to design unique solutions that create safer interactions between buses, bicyclists, pedestrians and vehicles. The project was challenging due to the sheer number of people that use Green Street to get to class, go to work or meet for lunch.
One thing I am really proud of is getting our team recognized for its accomplishments. I am always excited to nominate someone for an award they deserve. This helps them get recognized, not only within Hanson, but also with their colleagues in the community. It is a great feeling to lift others up for their accomplishments.
What do you consider to have been the most pivotal point in your career?
The most pivotal point in my career was in 2000, when my boss and mentor took another job. I looked at the situation as an opportunity to manage projects and clients at an early point in my career. I attribute this to my success in moving up at Hanson and becoming a regional vice president in 2007.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
I would have dinner with my dad. He was killed in a tragic work accident in 2003, and I never got to say goodbye. I’d cherish the opportunity to tell him everything that has happened since he passed and introduce him to my two youngest children, neither of whom he had the chance to meet.
What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
I have always wanted to visit Australia. Australia has many great places to visit, including the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef and the Outback. I want to see kangaroos and hold a koala.
How do you unwind after a long day of work?
I like to sit with a cup of hot tea and read a book.
Describe your board service and community involvement. What causes are near and dear to you?
I am grateful to have had many experiences serving our community. In 2003, I graduated from the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce Community Leadership School. In 2007, I attended the Chamber’s Political Leadership School. On the Chamber’s trip to Washington, DC, I met a lot of community leaders who became mentors and friends. I am co-chair of the Chamber’s Transportation Committee and chairwoman of the Peoria CEO Council. I served as one of the Heart of Illinois United Way cabinet members for the architects/engineers division for several years. I also serve on the Bradley University Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology Executive Advisory Council.
I believe in the United Way, because it serves a vital role in our community by providing needed funds to many nonprofits. Easterseals is also dear to me, because my son received occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech services to help him learn to walk and talk. Its autism programs serve as a great resource to the community.
What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
Work-life balance is all about give and take. I am not always home in time for dinner, but I make sure I am at important school functions and sporting events for my kids. Sometimes, it means working from home or missing a meeting to take care of sick kids. I try not to take work home with me too often. It is easier to stay at work an extra hour so I can focus on my family when I get home. My husband also plays a huge role in this. We keep a common calendar to know who is going to drop off or pick up the kids from school. My older children also help by making dinner or picking up their younger siblings from school.
What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
Always work hard and put your best foot forward, because you can be just as successful as your male counterparts. Do not be afraid to ask questions or work above your pay grade. Be the first one to volunteer for an assignment and be willing to put in the hours needed to complete the job. You will be recognized for your efforts. iBi