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Spotlight on Commerce: Lisa Larsen, Civil Engineer, U.S. Economic Development Administration

Guest blog post by Lisa Larsen, Civil Engineer, U.S. Economic Development Administration 


I am a Civil Engineer and work for the Commerce Department's U.S. Economic Development Administration. I oversee and manage a multitude of projects related to the construction of public infrastructure in communities that are economically distressed. The work we do includes upgrading water/sewer lines, facilitating the development of a manufacturing facility that offers high-paying jobs, renovating a building to house an Emergency Operations Center to help a rural community hit by natural disasters, and establishing a workforce training center to expand the workforce in a local community. The ultimate goal of these projects is to boost economic activity, create or retain jobs, and assist in long term economic recovery in distressed communities. 

Growing up, becoming a Civil Engineer was unknown to me. I was born in South Korea and adopted by an American family when I was six-years old. I was very fortunate to have parents who sowed the seeds of hard work, discipline, honor, and a can-do attitude.

Years after my adoption, I was able to return to my homeland as a teen. Through my comfortable, Americanized lenses, I was moved by the economic hardship endured in South Korea at the time, particularly in rural communities. A seed was planted in me during that visit. I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more. My American father was a civil engineer and I learned to love math and science. Growing up, I knew I would go into engineering and build. I attended Michigan Technological University, my father’s alma mate and a predominately engineering school where 75 percent of the student body was male. I was terrified, but it turned into a great experience. I learned a woman can integrate, hold her own, and gain respect.

After graduation, my early engineering years were spent in the private industry, eventually leading to working for the federal government with the U.S Department of Transportation-Federal Highway Administration. I spent the majority of my career here working as a highway engineer designing roadways, managing projects on federal lands and interstate highways, and overseeing transportation projects on tribal lands. I spent most of my career working in rural areas and smaller communities that have limited resources to improve infrastructure.

Overall, my journey as a civil engineer has taken me from building access roads into beautiful national parks and wildlife refuges to paving gravel roads to schools on Indian Reservations, to where I am now and right where I want to be--at the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

There is no one quote or person that has inspired me to do what I have and continue to do more than my never-ending desire to improve, enhance, and make what we take for granted better and safer. Nothing is more meaningful at the end of the day than knowing you have contributed to a community’s efforts to enhance their livelihoods, both financially and personally. This is what a civil servant does. 

When you embark on a career in federal service, you are representing your fellow citizens and given the torch to “do,” to make good use of taxpayer dollars, to keep your community and country running, and to keep it prosperous, no matter the geography.

Being a woman engineer has been a rewarding experience. My advice to youth and young women is to go for it. Just do. Work hard, be respectful, be patient, and speak up--gently. Do it because you want to and not because you need to prove anything. Strive to first love what you do--titles and pay will eventually fall in place. Happiness and well-being are most important in life and can energize you to do even more.

Ed. note: This post is part of the Spotlight on Commerce series highlighting the contributions of Department of Commerce women during Women's History Month.