#TtInspires: Jillian Jack Discusses Thriving in an Engineering Career as a Black STEM Professional
Jillian Jack has nearly 20 years of experience in the water and wastewater industry with expertise in project management, construction management, and design. Jillian has managed complex projects from conceptual design through construction throughout the southeastern United States, including numerous municipalities within Metro Atlanta, with a large portion of her career spent working with DeKalb County, Georgia. Her portfolio also includes sanitary sewer collection system projects, wastewater reuse feasibility studies, water treatment plant upgrades, and various water and wastewater master planning efforts. Jillian’s clients value her clear communication and history of successful project delivery.
Jillian is a member of Tetra Tech’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council as the Resilient and Sustainability Infrastructure representative. She also is the Chair of our BELIEVE Employee Resource Group (ERG), which provides a forum for Black employees and an active space for allies to engage, learn, and support their Black colleagues around the world. BELIEVE stands for Black Employees Leading in Innovation, Enthusiasm, Vision, and Excellence and was Tetra Tech’s first chartered ERG.
She holds a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Engineering from the University of Florida and a Master of Science in Environmental Engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
How did you get interested in engineering?
My path to engineering started with my parents. My parents immigrated to the United States from Jamaica before I was born. They didn’t have a lot of money but had a strong work ethic and were determined to succeed in their new country. Education for many people—but especially immigrant families—can be the tool to get you into what is perceived to be a good standing in life, allowing you to take care of yourself and your family. So there was a lot of emphasis for me growing up that education was the path to a stable long-term career, and that it was necessary for me to strive for success in my studies.
My parents noticed my natural aptitude for math and science early on, recognized my potential with that, and encouraged me to pursue a career in engineering. Out of all the program options, environmental engineering seemed like the most appealing program to me. I have always loved being outdoors and being surrounded by nature, so that's what led me to major in environmental engineering, where the focus was on water, wastewater, and air quality. I went on to complete a graduate program in environmental engineering, and from there landed my first job in water infrastructure.
What led you to a successful career in water infrastructure?
Well, it wasn’t an individual effort. I had a strong, supportive family foundation, and I have built a network of supportive peers throughout my career. When I first started doing design work—which I was capable of but didn’t love—I struggled with the notion that, as an engineer, I should enjoy working with minute details. However, what I have always enjoyed the most is working on a team with other people and focusing on the big picture of projects. When someone helped me let go of the idea of what an engineer should be on paper, that’s when I started to really thrive.
Early in my career, I had an informal mentor who allowed me to shadow him at meetings and pointed out to me that I have a really good eye for observing people. He told me that would be an important asset in my career as I started to work more with clients. He said that not every engineer is strong at providing clear communication, either in writing or in meetings, and that I really have a knack for that. That helped me embrace my strengths, and I began to work within the skillset that I was good at: building relationships, managing and organizing teams, keeping a team focused on a goal, and looking at projects on a big picture level. I started to feel like I found a niche I could excel in.
Joining Tetra Tech helped solidify that transition into doing more collaborative work. I’ve had the opportunity to build strong relationships with a recurring client and have enjoyed helping them meet their goals over the years on multiple projects.
What do you see as the keys to widening the pipeline to bring students from traditionally underrepresented groups into STEM careers?
I think this is a complicated question. What I have been able to accomplish as a Black professional in STEM ties back to having the support of my family. I had a very stable home with parents who valued education and were interested in my success. They took that opportunity to push me to do all I could to pursue this career path. Not everyone has that.
To support successful Black children in STEM, I think it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone is at the same starting point. Some have more hurdles ahead of them than others entering the field. It’s not the kind of issue that one company alone can solve, but there are ways companies can help. Companies can reach out and get involved with school kids to expose them to Black professionals with careers in STEM. My team has a long-standing partnership with a local elementary school. We support the teachers and kids at back-to-school time, and we participate in STEM activities with them. I think representation matters for kids—seeing someone who looks like them in a career they might not have considered can help encourage their interest in careers in STEM.
Companies can also partner with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), which has various chapters with the NSBE Jr. programs throughout the country to expose students to opportunities for careers in STEM. Tetra Tech has a partnership with NSBE to help provide professional and leadership development, mentorship, and career and community service events.
What advice would you give Black students looking to enter engineering or a STEM field?
Get into college prep classes in high school and try to expose yourself to people who are doing the things that you want to do as early as possible, and when applying to colleges, look for a college or university that has a supportive program. I was in a minority engineering program at the University of Florida called STEPUP that was integral to my success during my first few years. STEPUP provided additional tutoring and brought together freshman minority students at the school who were majoring in engineering. Being able to commiserate with other students who were walking the same path provided a strong support system that helped me get through very hard courses, and I am still close with many of those friends. If your school doesn’t have a similar program, join your school’s NSBE chapter and look for internship opportunities within your community. It’s important to join those organizations and connect with the people there.
What are some ways early career Black STEM professionals can set a foundation for success?
In addition to finding a supportive peer network in college, I’d also encourage you to join an Employee Resource Group (ERG) like our BELIEVE ERG early in your career to help build a supportive circle of professional friends. Having that network of professional relationships is crucial, especially if you don’t already have much connection to a community or supportive network otherwise. I’ve made some great friends through BELIEVE, and we’ve worked together on meaningful initiatives.
Finding that support is important, because you may encounter people who doubt you or say you don’t look like an engineer. Look for people who see your unique talents and keep an open mind about who you receive support from. It’s important to find someone in your organization who can push you and connect you to the right people. If you can build confidence in your abilities and you're not scared to continue pushing your boundaries, that natural progression will be seen by others. Sometimes the people who are going to push you along don't look anything like you.
I would also say that it’s important to not worry about proving people wrong. Just do good work and stay connected to supportive peers who are louder than the doubters. It’s possible to succeed and thrive as a Black STEM professional.