The Opening General Session of WEFTEC focused on using mentorship to develop a new crop of industry leaders


Mentorship is the key to developing a new generation to replace the retiring wave of water and wastewater professionals.

That was the theme of the Opening General Session today at WEFTEC in Chicago. In his welcome message, Rick Warner, WEF president, noted the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education as a foundation for drawing young people into the field and creating a great workforce. He also stressed the importance of “intentional knowledge exchange” between more experienced and younger professionals.

Keynote speaker Fredi Lajvardi described the power of STEM education and mentorship in telling how his team of students from Carl Hayden High School in Phoenix, Arizona, won an underwater robotics competition against teams from elite universities such as MIT, Virginia Tech and Stanford.

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Their story is told in a book and movie, both titled Spare Parts; a documentary titled Underwater Dreams, and an IMAX film, Dream Big. Lajvardi took a team of students from a high school in an impoverished area of Phoenix and, by steering them to the right advisors from industry, helped them succeed hugely against formidable odds.

He concluded with a message about mentorship and diversity: “Only when you consider the diversity of the population you work with you have the best chance of solving all the problems you’re going to face. You never know where the next great idea is going to come from.”

His presentation was followed by a series of WEF talks about the value of mentorship. Tom Ferguson of Imagine H2O shared his story of moving from a career as an actor into the water sector. “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” he said. “The more you learn from those who have gone before you, the mistakes they’ve made, and the insights they’ve gained, the more focused and productive your own perspiration will be.”

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Joan Rose, a water pollution microbiologist with Michigan State University, observed, “For all the young professionals here, I want you to know the world needs you. They need your enthusiasm, your energy, your talents, your knowledge. So take those opportunities your mentors provide for you. Immerse yourself in other disciplines. Share what you know. Learn what you don’t know.”

Ifetayo Venner, of Arcadis, told of her inspirations from growing up in Barbados. She said mentors taught her that, “I was capable of more than I ever gave myself credit for, and if I wanted to grow in my career I had to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you don’t stretch yourself and try new things, you will never grow or get better, and you will never find what your passion is about.”

Concluding the session, Carla Reid, civil engineer and the first woman general manager of the Washington (D.C.) Suburban Sanitary Commission, observed that while growing in a career can be difficult, “Things being hard is the point." She also noted, “Mentors are great, but it’s really up to you. A mentor can show you the path, but you are the one who has to choose the path, and walk down that path.”

Related: On Tap: Who Were Your Mentors?

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