Skip to main content

Education helps engineering alum 'make a difference in the world'

January 21, 2011

In the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake that hit the country of Haiti a year ago, engineer Rob Jeter recalls flashing back to lessons he learned at Arizona State University.

Jeter, who earned the class of 1997 Outstanding Senior Award in what was then ASU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, works for the Office of Design and Engineering in the U.S Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations.

Shortly after the earthquake in January 2010 he was deployed to Haiti as part of an engineering emergency response team.

When Jeter’s team arrived, the country was experiencing the first of dozens of powerful aftershocks.

The magnitude 7.0 Haiti quake left hundreds of thousands of people among the dead and injured, and possibly as many as one million homeless. An estimated 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial building had collapsed or were extensively damaged.

“It was my first time in a crisis situation,” Jeter says. “It was a high-stress environment. We had to work on the fly and react to volatile conditions.”

The experience “made me appreciate that I had begun preparing for something like this at ASU,” he says.

Life-saving skills

Working effectively as a part of a team, approaching complicated problems logically, being confident enough in your expertise to take the lead in challenging situations, “those things were always stressed by many of my ASU teachers,” Jeter says.

The team’s assignment was to assess the damage to more than 100 buildings – the residences and offices of U.S. embassy and diplomatic staffers in the country – and help provide for temporary housing needs of U.S. Foreign Service workers.

“We worked right alongside the search and rescue teams,” he says. “There were masses of people trying to find safe places, or be evacuated.”

Amid the destruction, rescue workers rushed to set up mobile command centers, medical aid stations and thousands of tents to shelter the displaced populace.

“My goal was to help make sure we had water and sanitation, and other basic facilities for rescue teams and security forces to do their jobs,” Jeter says. “I was using all the skills I’d learned in hydraulics, hydrology, structural and environmental engineering.”

The strong grounding he had gotten at ASU in technical problem-solving and teamwork, he says, “were being put to use to support a mission that was saving lives and keeping our citizens safe.”

Social aspects of engineering

Along with the commitment of aid teams, he witnessed the resiliency of the earthquake’s survivors.

“The Haitians showed an amazing ability to bounce back after a disaster. People engineer their own ways to persevere,” Jeter recalls. “Less than a week after the earthquake, many were back to selling their wares in the street markets to at least get them back to a subsistence level of life.”

Jeter’s work in Haiti has been only the most dramatic of the learning experiences he’s had on the job.

He’s responsible for civil engineering aspects of capital and maintenance projects for nearly half of the more than 300 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.

He has worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Mauritania, Chile, Finland, Lebanon, England and Germany. In all he’s worked in at least 20 different countries since joining the State Department early in 2008.

He says he has learned that it takes more than mastering the technical skills for engineers to fulfill their roles.

In “real-life engineering,” he says, “it’s critical to understand the people, and the cultural and social realities in whatever environment you’re working in,” he says.

Continuing education

Jeter is getting opportunities to employ a range of engineering expertise. He is the water resources specialist for the State Department’s “green team,” a group that is implementing energy-efficiency and sustainability guidelines for government buildings.

He is also the flood mitigation specialist on a team that is designing ways to protect U.S. government overseas properties from the threats of natural hazards and disasters.

Jeter worked in the private sector for more than a decade before taking the federal position – with some hesitation about going to the public sector.

Now, he says, “I’ve found that the negative stereotype of a government worker can be completely wrong. I work with many people who are dedicated, talented and productive.”

Going from the “for-profit model of business to the mission-based model is something that’s in line with my core values,” he says. “I think colleges can do a better job of helping students learn if they will fit better into one of those two models.”

Prepared for challenges

As for his own college education, Jeter says his best teacher was the one who was the hardest on students.

“I always appreciated how tough he was,” he says of Robert Hinks, now an associate professor in the College of Technology and Innovation at ASU’s Polytechnic Campus. “He was very serious. But if you put in the effort, he made himself available to help you succeed.”

Hinks and Jeter have stayed in contact since Jeter graduated.

“Rob could never have known that someday he would be travelling on behalf of the United States government to some of the most needy, even most dangerous, places in the world,” Hinks says. “It’s gratifying to see Rob relate his performance in facing the challenges of his work today to his learning experiences at ASU.”

Hinks says he thinks Jeter “would feel good knowing how in recent years the university has accelerated the improvement of the quality of education to better prepare students to follow in his footsteps.”

Jeter wrote to Hinks about the experience in Haiti, telling how he was applying the engineering and teamwork skills he had learned in college.

“Thank you and ASU,” he wrote to Hinks, “for giving me what it takes to make a difference in the world.”