It takes a unique combination of skills and personality to do the work of Frances Fierst, a CU engineering alumna whose development work has taken her to some of the poorest and most war-torn locations on the planet. After several years of working as a mechanical engineer in the manufacturing sector, Fierst decided to change the trajectory of her career by pursuing master’s degrees in engineering management and civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. While at CU, Fierst became a member of Engineers Without Borders and helped to implement several water source protection and water delivery system projects in Ilam and Namsaling, Nepal, during the summer of 2007.
The alumna, who obtained her engineering management degree in 2002 and MS in civil engineering in 2008, says she gained valuable experience through her graduate programs and EWB projects that helped her land her first job with USAID in 2009, a 13-month assignment on a provincial reconstruction team in rural Afghanistan near the country’s border with Pakistan. Fierst has since helped to train military personnel deploying to Afghanistan and worked as a member of a USAID disaster preparedness team back in Nepal. She’s currently a member of the Civilian Response Corps, a group of civilian federal employees who are specially trained and equipped to deploy rapidly to provide conflict prevention and stabilization assistance to countries in crisis or emerging from conflict.
A former U.S. Army officer, Fierst says she thrives on the adventure, but admits her work comes with a variety of challenges: “Uncertainty is hard – never knowing where you’re headed or for how long.” And, “things never go as fast as you’d like.” It’s also hard to know if you can really make a difference “in a place where they’re still shooting at you,” she said. This was the case in Afghanistan, where Fierst was required to wear full body armor and travel in an armored military convoy.
Still, Fierst said she loves her job. “I get paid to travel around and work on interesting problems. It’s great to experience different cultures, lifestyles, and countries … to work with military, governments, and local peoples you’d never get exposure to if your weren’t working internationally.”