Like a River

img-3If you know that Emily Rhody Javens ’96, ’01, ’03 comes from a long line of strong women, then you’ll be utterly unsurprised at this: She’s a water resources engineer in a male-dominated field who oversees multi-county projects.

The academic path Javens took to that career has been more of a mindful meander than a straight, predictable shot. After graduating from high school in Willmar, Minn., she was drawn to the curricular combinations of mathematics and science at Minnesota State Mankato.

Javens earned her first bachelor’s degree with an earth science major and mathematics education minor, which launched her into three years of teaching junior high and high school students. But something was gnawing
away at her: “I needed to be challenged more, scientifically and mathematically.”

So she returned to her alma mater to complete a second bachelor’s degree, this one in mathematics. While earning that degree she heard about the  University’s new civil engineering program. “I told myself, ‘Yup, I’m doing that,’” she says. “And it was the best thing I ever did.”

It was, however, a hard thing to do, as veterans of advanced calculus can attest. “I had to take Calculus 3 twice,” says Javens. Her reaction to the do-over? “Engineering is an exercise in tenacity, so I might have stumbled,
but I couldn’t stop.”

5 Generations copyNo more than her mother stopped as one of the few women of her era to earn a college degree in mathematics. No more than her grandmother stopped running a large nursing home as a registered nurse, in an era when few
women worked out of the home. No more than her great-grandmother stopped as a young widow running her South Dakota farm.

“Those women in my family gave me the confidence to know that I can figure out the next challenge I’ll face,” she says.

A Way with Water
So persist Javens did. She was among five graduates who earned the first civil engineering degrees from Minnesota State Mankato in 2003.

Just before her graduation, Dr. Jim Wilde joined the civil engineering faculty; he has provided leadership ever since for a program that’s grown from five to an average of 25 graduates a year. “Not only that,” he says, “it
looks like the program will continue to grow.”

Wilde says that Javens and her classmates, once established in their profession, showed their belief in the goodness of giving to such a strong program: They jointly established an annual scholarship for a civil engineering student at Minnesota State Mankato.

Their quintet has flourished in a rainbow of careers with strikingly different hues. Their individual specialties are nuclear energy, water parks, roads, structures and, in Javens’ case, water resources.

“My passion as an engineer is clean water,” says Javens. “I design and oversee the construction of projects that clean up our rivers and streams.”

Her favorite river, she says, is the Minnesota—but right now her work is focused on the Yellow Medicine, a 107-mile long squiggle on the map that flows into the Minnesota River at the Upper Sioux Agency State Park, southeast of Granite Falls. She’s managing a Yellow Medicine watershed project as an engineer for the consulting company RESPEC. She works out
of her Mankato-area home, where she lives with her husband, Travis Javens, and their 16-year-old daughter, Kendra.

The project is called “One Watershed, One Plan.” It’s a sea change in water quality management, because all 10 government units in the four-county Yellow Medicine watershed have joined forces to clean up the river, instead of picking away at the problem, unit by unit.

Which puts pressure on Javens, who facilitates project meetings of 30-plus people. “I try to have all of them leave the room still friends,” she says with a smile.

She freely gives out smiles layered with laughter—surely a boon for managing meetings, especially when combined with her intelligence. “Emily’s innovative style and strong technical skills,” says Julie Blackburn, a colleague of Javens at RESPEC, “align with her ability to facilitate
diverse stakeholders toward a shared vision.”

Javens believes her gender may be at work, too. “Men and women think differently,” she says. “For example, when I lead a meeting, I make sure everyone is comfortable before starting,” whereas a man might jump
straightaway into the agenda.

She did experience some gender discrimination as she advanced in her career. But that’s never happened on a construction site, often a second home for civil engineers—and often chock-full of men.

“People there tell me it’s clear that I come to learn,” she says. “They also tell me that some male engineers act like they know everything.”

Javens’ love of learning floods another facet of her life: teaching. “I love to teach,” she says. “I share my passion for the subject and watch to see
my students light up.”

At Minnesota State Mankato, she’s taught hydrology in civil engineering and erosion control in construction management. She also leads workshops in erosion control across the state for the University of Minnesota and
speaks in schools for the Greater Mankato Diversity Council.

“I ask girls—I plead with them—to consider mathematics and science careers,” says Javens. “I tell them I need you on the teams I work with
because of what women can offer.”

What women can offer is often called “soft” skills—being sensitive to the human side of work, for instance. Except “soft” is bloated with linguistic bias; the Oxford English Dictionary cites one meaning as “involving little or no exertion or effort.”

But there’s nothing “soft” about what it takes to go back to college and flip from education to engineering, then deploy both disciplines as a successful water resources engineer.

Indeed, all of that is hard. And to that intimidating truth, Javens says she can imagine a rollicking good response from her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who would simply say:
“So what?”  —Jeff Iseminger


  1. patricia earle says

    wonderful!- down with all those old stereotypes!!

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