Life Lessons & Learning: A celebration of women in the Kansas City District, Part 3

A woman stands on a bridge with her arms in the air with water in the foreground and trees in the background.

Heather Howse, Kansas City District program analyst.

A woman sits at a desk and smiles while wearing glasses.

Mary Smith, Kansas City District contract specialist.


While the path to success has led each of these five women to different places within USACE, they have all had the benefit of accumulating important lessons throughout the course of their careers and their lives. The lessons vary among the women, but one thing they all have in common is the value these lessons bring to each new opportunity.

Rhonda Wilkinson, resident engineer

Rhonda Wilkinson started her USACE career with many years of experience already under her belt. Having worked in the private industry and as an associate professor of engineering, she is incredibly accomplished in her field. However, as an engineer, a field that has typically seen larger populations of men, Wilkinson often finds herself as one of few, if not the only, women in the room.

“Throughout my whole career … a lot of times I’m the only woman,” said Wilkinson.

Although it has not been uncommon for Wilkinson to be in the minority within her field, she has not let that stop her from achieving success. She also does not see it as a negative, having learned early on to advocate for herself. The most important lesson that she has learned so far? Believe in yourself.

"Don't let your gender hold you back. Don't be afraid to be assertive," said Wilkinson. "Don't be afraid to go for it. You can do it all.

Mary Smith, contract specialist

Before coming to the Kansas City District, Mary Smith’s career had taken her around the world. Not only has this provided her with countless once-in-a-lifetime experiences, but she has also learned a lot about herself in the process. For Smith, learning to balance work and her personal life was key to her success.

“[A lesson I learned is] advocating for myself, and when things got hard, figuring out that work-life balance helped,” said Smith.

Sometimes easier said than done, finding the right work-life balance helped Smith to take charge of her career. She now tries to mentor and guide young professionals who might be struggling to find their own balance. One thing that she tries to instill in young professionals, or anyone who might seek her mentorship, is the power of continuing your education.

“You are in charge of your own education,” said Smith. “Look at your career maps … take a step back and look around … and always add to your tool box.”

Heather Howse, program analyst

Heather Howse, a former military spouse, is used to constant change in life and in her career. What some might have seen as a challenge, Howse saw as an opportunity. While her positions have changed throughout her career, Howse learned an important lesson early on, which she has carried with her to each new job.

“It’s okay to not know the answer … take in as much as possible,” said Howse. “Learn your craft north, south, east and west … I want to learn what I'm doing so that I can help others and maybe inspire others to want to do what I do."

Howse learned to become comfortable being uncomfortable when starting a new position. But she also learned the importance of networking and having people at work that you can rely on to help you.  

“Don’t be afraid to network and put yourself out there for the challenges,” said Howse. “Once you start to get into things you don’t know how to do so well, that’s where your true development begins.”

Angelia Lentz, natural resource specialist

Angelia Lentz has worked in the natural resource field for many years and with many different federal and state agencies. Anyone who has worked for the government knows that each agency has their own processes and procedures. From the beginning of her career, Lentz learned the importance of mentorship, especially when facing changes. 

“I probably can’t oversell enough how important it is to look for mentors and role models,” said Lentz.

For Lentz, the challenge of navigating different government agencies throughout her career has taught her many lessons, both professionally and personally. One lesson that Lentz has carried with her, no matter her job, is not being afraid to lean on your co-workers. Lentz learned that it’s okay to not be the expert at everything and being open to other people’s knowledge and expertise can help you succeed. 

“It’s really important to know who on your team has the most knowledge … on everything,” said Lentz. “Leverage the entire team’s knowledge instead of just your own.”

Diana McCoy, public affairs chief

Diana McCoy’s entire career has been spent at the Kansas City District, but she feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to work in different sections. The district is large, spanning five states, and there are seemingly countless opportunities available to those who seek them out. McCoy learned early on in her career that being open-minded can take you places you never imagined.

“The world is open to you, especially here at [USACE],” said McCoy. “You can go to other districts, and you can get involved nationally at the headquarters level.”

Although there are many opportunities when working for USACE, McCoy learned that you must be proactive and actively seek out things that interest you. One lesson that she has carried with her throughout her career is the importance of finding what makes you happy at work.

“It can be kind of lonely at first until you understand the district a little better, have a chance to meet people and make some friends,” said McCoy. "Just hang in there; you're going to find the thing that gets you excited to come into work every day and it's going to be worth it." 

Each of these incredible women bring value and a unique perspective to the USACE team. The lessons they have shared are useful and can apply to anyone. Next week, we will look to the future and hear what advice these five amazing women have for the next generation of USACE employees.