Lena Rivera was figuratively thrown into the fire on her first day as director of public works and utilities for the city of Winter Springs. Literally, however, Rivera was tossed into a deluge of wind and water as Hurricane Irma slammed into Central Florida.
“I certainly had to hit the ground running,” the Cuban-born civil engineer recalled of the chaotic scene that greeted her. “That day and the days that followed were all about debris management. The hurricane saw the city at its finest, reacting to the challenges.”
Rivera is no stranger to challenges. She was 7 years old when, in 1983, her family left Cuba and came to the U.S. to start a new life. Once in America, Rivera’s father continued his career as an electrical engineer and her mother went to work with the South Florida Water Management District, so young Rivera’s career path already had some natural momentum toward environmental and water management sciences. Rivera attended the University of Central Florida on a full academic scholarship from NASA, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering before earning another full scholarship to Duke University for a master’s in civil engineering.
Her first post-college job was as an intern for consulting engineering giant CDM Smith, where she rose to principal engineer. After 16 years in the private arena, Rivera made the plunge into the public sector with the city of Winter Springs.
“It was exciting and hectic at first (with the hurricane cleanup),” Rivera says, “but public service and problem solving always resonated with me.”
Rivera “engineers” a full private life outside of her work schedule. She and her husband, a fellow engineer, have two children, as well as a busy, proactive community service life that includes activities involving youth and engineering outreach.
Rivera speaks emphatically about women succeeding in the sciences. “Being a civil engineer may be considered an unusual profession for a female to enter, but it’s a career path that is available and should be attractive to women and other minorities,” Rivera said, adding, “For me, I don’t even think too much anymore about being a woman in a male-dominated industry. I’m an engineer, period.”