Mentorship Programs Pave a Path to a More Sustainable Future for the Water Sector

June 13, 2017

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Kristi Steiner, member of the WEF Students and Young Professionals Committee

Photo courtesy of Kristi Steiner.

Photo courtesy of Kristi Steiner.


Steiner, engineer in the Treatment Plant Services group at Clean Water Services (Hillsboro, Ore.), joined the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) in 2012. Currently, she is a member of the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association (PNCWA). She has worked as a project manager at Civil West Engineering Services Inc. (Coos Bay, Ore.) in the Albany, Ore. office, water resources engineer for Arcadis (Highlands Ranch, Colo.) in various east coast offices, and a research assistant at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech; Blacksburg, Va.). She has earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from North Carolina State University (Raleigh) and a master’s degree in water resources engineering from Virginia Tech.

Cristina Lugo knows the benefits a mentorship program can provide those entering the water sector. She co-presented a paper with her mentor during the 2017 Water Environment Association of Ontario (WEAO) conference to share their experience.

Finding the missing piece – mentorship

During the presentation, Lugo, a member of the WEAO Students and Young Professionals Committee (SYPC), explained that many young professionals find themselves on auto-pilot after high school, following the traditionally defined path to a “successful career”:

  • step 1: go to college;
  • step 2: get internship experience;
  • step 3: graduate from college; and
  • step 4: find a job.

But how many people actually know what career they want to pursue straight out of college?

College may teach the fundamentals of math, science, and literature — important subjects that build the foundations of technical knowledge — but an integral piece is missing from the traditional career development path; this piece is finding a mentor.

WEAO recognized the importance of this missing piece and laid the groundwork for a mentorship program in 2010–2011. The program is designed to help recent graduates and young professionals transition from academia into the professional workplace. WEAO officially launched the program at its annual conference in 2013. The Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association (PNCWA) also kicked off its mentorship program in 2013.

Lugo is one of many students and young professionals who have participated in the WEAO mentorship program. While finishing a doctorate, Lugo realized she did not want to continue down a career path in academia but had no idea how to start pursuing another career. She was interested in the water sector but felt she lacked enough general knowledge of the sector to know what opportunities were available for her to pursue.

Lugo heard about the mentorship program during a SYPC informational session at the 2016 WEAO annual conference. She thought it might be a good opportunity for her to connect with someone with knowledge of the water sector and could potentially help her find a career path to be excited about. As it turns out, she was right.

“It changed my life,” Lugo said.

Gaining inspiration through trust, respect, and communication

From left, Cristina Lugo and her mentor Lynne Maclennan co-present about the benefits of mentoring during the 2017 Water Environment Association of Ontario (WEAO) conference. WEF photo/Caroline Pakenham.

From left, Cristina Lugo and her mentor Lynne Maclennan co-present about the benefits of mentoring during the 2017 Water Environment Association of Ontario (WEAO) conference. WEF photo/Caroline Pakenham.

Through the program, Lugo was paired with Lynne Maclennan, an environmental biologist with a master’s degree who specializes in water and wastewater. Maclennan has been involved with the WEAO mentorship program since it began. During the following year, Lugo and Maclennan not only stayed in-touch through email and phone calls, but also set aside time every few months to talk face-to-face. Maclennan connected Lugo with individuals who would provide interesting perspectives and help her explore unique facets of the water sector. Maclennan made the introductions and trusted Lugo to follow up.

Trust is key to a successful mentor–mentee relationship, because a “mentor can only give you the tools you need, not do all the work for you,” Lugo said.

Lugo sat down with professionals from different areas of the water sector, from municipal operators to consultants. She also had the opportunity to tour water resource recovery facilities. These connections and experiences helped Lugo gain a better understanding of the water sector.

Lugo was touched and inspired by her mentor’s willingness to openly share her professional network. She explained that feeling confidence from her mentor helped Lugo build confidence in herself. The experience has inspired Lugo to become a mentor in the future, in hopes that she can make a meaningful difference in another student or young professional’s life, she said.

Making a commitment that benefits individuals and the water sector

Lugo shares the benefits for each the young professional and the seasoned professional offered by mentorship programs during her portion of the presentation. WEF photo/Pakenham.

Lugo shares the benefits for each the young professional and the seasoned professional offered by mentorship programs during her portion of the presentation. WEF photo/Pakenham.

Lugo and Maclennan co-presented on the WEAO mentorship program during the 2017 WEAO annual conference. They discussed the general program layout and highlighted the importance and benefits of mentorship for professional development at all stages of a career.

For Lugo, the program offered a chance to learn more about the water sector, helped open doors to new opportunities, taught her how to build a professional network, and how to find the right place to start her career. For Maclennan, it provided an opportunity to support the sustainability of the water sector, connect with great people, and keep learning new things about the sector.

“We talk about problems of succession planning and hiring the right people for the job,” Maclennan said. “The mentorship program is a positive and enjoyable way to overcome these problems.”

Joining a mentorship program to achieve success

Enrollment in the WEAO or PNCWA mentorship programs typically begins after the annual conference and involves filling out a survey to provide basic information such as geographic location, level of experience, areas of interest or expertise, and objectives and goals of participation.

The SYPC mentorship subcommittee assigns mentor–mentee pairs based on survey results and makes introductions through email. While mentoring guidance documents are available online to help pairs set up-front goals and jump-start conversations, pairs have the freedom to choose how they want to develop their relationship.

“Too much structure just gets in the way,” said Chris Horgan, member of the PNCWA SYPC mentorship subcommittee.

The ultimate goal for these pairs is to develop their connection into a long-term, mutually beneficial relationships that helps each grow to their full potential and accomplish their goals and objectives.

To join a program or learn more, contact

— Kristi Steiner, Students and Young Professionals Committee

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