Life Lessons & Learning: A celebration of women in the Kansas City District, Part 1

Published March 8, 2023
A woman holds a wooden frame and looks at it while a man in a military uniform stands to the left with a young girl in a back dress with a white sweater.

Heather Howse - Program Analyst

A woman with black and grey curly hair with a yellow shirt in a light and dark grey room.

Mary Smith - Contract Specialist

A woman in a military uniform leans up against a vehicle talking to a man in a red shirt outside.

Diana McCoy -- Public Affairs chief

PART 1:

When walking down the road to success, not every path looks the same. People choose different paths of that road to discover who they are and where they belong.

For Women’s History Month 2023, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District is highlighting the unique stories of six women to celebrate their varied contributions from across the district and inspire the next generation of USACE women.   

Rhonda Wilkinson, resident engineer

Let’s start with Rhonda Wilkinson, the Fort Riley resident office, resident engineer. Wilkinson was born and raised in western Kansas and earned her degree in architectural engineering from Kansas State University. For the next 15 years, Wilkinson and her husband moved around Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas, while she worked for various consulting engineering firms.

“I did mechanical system designs for buildings … The type of projects I got to work on were anything from schools, churches, office buildings … complex research labs, and pharmaceutical and biotech projects,” Wilkinson said.

She worked on challenging projects across the country, learning more every day. Then, in 2005, a unique opportunity crossed her path.

“I got an offer to teach in the College of Engineering for the Department of Architectural Engineering and Construction Science at Kansas State University,” Wilkinson said.

She taught for four years, ending as an associate professor, before taking a job with the Fort Riley Department of Public Works for a year. Then she joined USACE at the Fort Riley resident office, where she has been since 2010.

Mary Smith, contract specialist

On the other side of the world in Europe, Mary Smith, contract specialist, was traveling along her path to success.

“I’m an Army brat, born and raised in Germany. When I graduated high school in Germany, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, basically, but I didn’t want to leave Europe just yet,” Smith said.

Smith stayed in Germany and started a job in federal human resources. After two years, she left her job to attend college at a University of Maryland satellite campus in Manheim, earning a degree in computer science. She spent some time in the computer science field, but ended up going back to school, this time in the U.S. at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to get three more degrees in political science, international studies and German.

For many years following her graduation, Smith traveled back and forth from Europe and the U.S. working jobs in human resources and contracting quality assurance. One day, she decided to move in a different direction.

“I said, honestly, I want to go into contracting. I’m seeing a different side of it, like the execution side is different, and I think it is interesting,” Smith said.

That was roughly four years ago. Since then, she has received her certifications for contracting and worked as a contact specialist for the Mission Installation Contracting Command at Fort Knox, Kentucky. She started as a contract specialist with the Kansas City District environmental contracting team in March 2022 and is coming up on her one-year anniversary.

Heather Howse, program analyst

Heather Howse, Next National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) West Campus project, program analyst, also had a winding path to success with many branches for different experiences.

Howse grew up in Winchester, Tennessee, and went to the University of Memphis for psychology. Her early professional years were spent in social work before she went back to school and got her master’s in human resource management, while her husband, who was active-duty Army, was on a deployment.

As a military spouse, Howse traveled around the country, serving in multiple positions, mostly in human resources with the U.S. Army.

“I had “gotten my feet wet” in different aspects of HR throughout various positions, but it wasn’t until I began working for [USACE] where I really gained more experience,” Howse said.

In 2018, her husband arrived at his final duty station before retirement, and she was hired at the USACE Next NGA West Campus project as their administrative officer.

“I’ve had the opportunity to apply my education in supporting our leadership with various personnel actions and monitoring expenditures, which gradually opened the door to [my current] position,” Howse said, referring to her recent change from administrative office to program analyst.

Angelia Lentz, Tuttle Creek Lake natural resource specialist

Across the Kansas/Missouri state line, Angelia Lentz, Tuttle Creek Lake natural resource specialist, has worked with natural resources for many years, paving her path for success.

In 1999, she graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in park resource management. While at Kansas State University, she had an internship that sparked her interest in park management.

“My internship was with [USACE] – I was a seasonal ranger at Harlan County [Lake],” Lentz said. “We used to take family trips to Harlan County [Lake]. I grew up in [USACE] parks … so, it was top of my list for places that I wanted to do an internship at for sure.”

Lentz went on to work for different local, state and federal government organizations, including Fort Riley, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, and the City of Manhattan. Each position gave her different experiences.

“Probably one of my favorite programs I worked on was the warrior adventure quest program [at Fort Riley], which specifically paired high adventure activities, mostly outdoor activities, into the redeployment cycle to help mitigate negative behaviors of soldiers as they were reintroducing themselves to the new norm after they'd been deployed,” Lentz said.

Throughout her career, Lentz knew she wanted to circle back and work for USACE again, and she did when she started as a natural resource specialist at Tuttle Creek Lake in 2017.

Diana McCoy, public affairs chief

Diana McCoy, public affairs chief, spent her childhood years traveling from the Philippines, her country of birth, to various places throughout the U.S. because her father was in the Air Force. After many years of moving, her family settled in Kansas City when her father retired from military service.

McCoy followed in her father’s footsteps and enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves as an automated logistical specialist during her second year of college at Northwest Missouri State University. She also joined Army ROTC for her last two years on campus and commissioned as a quartermaster officer after graduation.

In order to graduate, she had to complete an internship, so just like Lentz, McCoy also started her professional career as an intern with USACE.

McCoy drilled with a reserve unit in Belton, Missouri, and one of the other officers happened to work for the Kansas City District. He suggested she reach out to the district’s public affairs office for an internship.

“I contacted Mitch, [the public affairs chief at the time], and he said that he could use an intern and so I sent him my resume and my transcripts and that is how I got started with [USACE] … back in 2004,” McCoy said.

She worked as an intern part-time while finishing her degree and was offered a full-time permanent job with the public affairs office immediately after graduation. She has been with the district ever since.

This is just the beginning of five incredible stories – each unique in their own way. For the next three weeks, portions of these women’s stories will be released to paint a larger picture and offer advice to the next generation of women in USACE. Next week will focus on the women’s careers at USACE and start to discuss lessons they learned throughout the years.