Can we discuss your successes in the last year and any obstacles you overcame to achieve them?
In the last year my biggest success has been a smooth transition between our San Diego office and Sacramento Office. A major challenge during this process was arriving in the new city and office, and then having COVID-19 disrupt our normal way of life. Staying flexible and finding creative ways to continue to meet client needs has been key to the successful transition in these odd times. I’m looking forward to continuing to get to know the area as things open up and continuing to serve our northern California clients as they themselves are working through their own challenges.
Tell me about your background, Julia.
I started my career in construction when I was 19 – working initially for Knife River Corporation in Oregon. My job was to visit their ready mix and asphalt plants to ensure safety requirements were being met.
After I graduated from Gonzaga University, with a civil engineering degree, I worked for Kiewit in various roles. I gained experience as an estimator, superintendent, design manager and project engineer – much of this work was in the heavy civil and structure sector, which became a real passion for me.
When I moved to San Diego I worked for a small life-science contractor, Cannon Building as a Senior Project Engineer before joining HKA (at the time, Hill International).
What inspires you in your job?
For me, it’s the ability to help our clients overcome major project hurdles. I am passionate about what I do because often the analysis I perform is the first time the project team is getting a magnitude of their damages or delays due to a given issue.
It is rewarding to suggest new options for project teams to consider that will ultimately let them focus on what is important—getting back to building work.
Describe a typical day in your role.
I spend most of my time getting into the nitty-gritty details on a project. Cost records, schedules, and existing correspondence are all important documents that I spend considerable time evaluating.
While I primarily work remotely, I do travel at times to meet with project teams or attorneys. Each project is unique and I adjust as needed to meet those specific needs.
In between this, I try to find at least some time each day for professional development. This may involve attending training sessions or simply reading industry articles to stay up-to-date. A benefit to my role is that I also get to work closely with junior staff to help with their training.
Today we’d like to introduce you to Julia Villalobos.
Julia, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’m Julia Villalobos and I was born and raised in Norcross, GA. My father was born in Costa Rica and my mother is from North Carolina. I grew up in the states speaking English as my first language and was proud of my Latino heritage but not as in touch with it as I could be. In middle school, I had a teacher that changed that, a Spanish teacher whose love of the language and passion for her work was infectious. She made me love the language and grow a great curiosity in my own culture. Through the years, I was able to use language as a way to explore my own heritage and identity. As a college student, I was able to travel to and study in Costa Rica.
At the time, I had never traveled abroad, nor had I met a majority of my family that lived there. This was an incredible experience that I had no idea at the time would change my life forever. I remember being extremely excited to not only get out of the country but to also see childhood stories told by my grandparents and father come to life before my eyes. As nervous as I was to travel alone and be welcomed by family members I had never met, the second I stepped off the plane, I was overwhelmed with an immediate sense of calm and feeling of home. The entire experience of studying Spanish, living with a host family, and getting to spend time with my family learning so much about my heritage, truly made the rest click for me. There was no doubt in my mind after that trip that I wanted to teach Spanish and continue to learn more about my own culture and identity. As an extroverted and friendly person, the role of the teacher came naturally to me. I was able to easily relate to and communicate with my students on a level that appealed to them.
Has it been a smooth road?
Growing into the person I am today has been a difficult journey. Like a lot of teens, I had to grow up too young. In high school, my parents began to experience health problems and my world changed from being just a student to also being a caretaker and financial support for my family. I had to balance school with working nearly full time and trying to process and manage the emotions that come with having a sick loved one. When it was time to head off to college, I had to deal with the reality that there wasn’t money to send me to my dream school. Medical bills and financial strain meant that I would have to take out loans to pay my own way through college and I had to adjust my plans to continue moving forward under new circumstances. Caring for my family and navigating the pressures of being a young adult continued through my college career and I learned that caring for myself and my mental health was critical to surviving the ups and downs.
Two years ago, my father passed away after a battle with a long-term illness. His death shook my foundation and sent me spiraling with grief. My mental health took a nosedive and through it all, I had to continue to show up for my students. What I didn’t anticipate was that my students would show up for me. The relationships I built with my students sustained me and my passion for teaching led me through some of my darkest times. You always hear about how much students need their teachers but what people don’t know is that us teachers need them just as much.
We’d love to hear more about your work.
I am a Spanish teacher at Norcross High School, my alma mater. I love my students and I love my school. Our student population is over 40% Latino and I’m thrilled to offer these students different opportunities to celebrate their cultural identities and heritages through a number of clubs and organizations. I (co-lead?) La Voz, a multi-ethnic club with an emphasis on Hispanic culture. I also work with our branch of H.O.P.E. – the Hispanic Organization Promoting Education. This organization focuses on providing resources for Latino students to address collegiate financial needs. Both of these student organizations have a focus on community service, which is great for demonstrating to the kids how to get involved in their own neighborhoods.
Our student population has a large percentage of students of color. The longer I work as an educator, the more dedicated I am to empowering our youth to help them see their potential and thrive in the here and now. In the current political climate, many of our students are experiencing trauma and fear tied to I.C.E. activities and immigration policies, police brutality and an ongoing pandemic. We want to address our students’ need for validation and support during this time, which has turned teachers into counselors. Our student mentorship program has evolved during Covid-19 to be a wide-reaching social/emotional learning curriculum. I have worked alongside my incredible co-director to create a number of lessons that help students access their five social/emotional competencies to give them tools to cope with the confusing and upsetting world around them. We can’t ignore the fact that these students are just as deeply affected by national issues as us adults are. They often also have existing issues at home, sometimes the same issues I faced as a student that had to grow up too fast.
Our teachers are facing enormous strain as we do our jobs, protect our health and our students’ health and navigate an increasingly tumultuous world as educators and role models. I am so proud of what my school and my students have accomplished and am thankful for the strong community we have built together at Norcross. Moving forward, I have nothing but high hopes for my students. I feel lucky to know kids with resilience and strength; many people don’t have to develop their entire lives. I believe in the work that we are doing and know that people have power. Building up our next generation of students and teachers can only make us stronger as a community and I am happy for the role I can play in lifting my community up.
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