Out West student blog

At the US Army Corps, Warning: Acronyms Ahead

Reading and editing a slide deck for a presentation on risk-informed decision making in USACE Planning.

By Maggie Wood
B.S., Civil Engineering, 2019
Planning Intern
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

On your first day you should be here by 8AM. We have a few meetings I want you to sit in on,” my supervisor, Josephine Axt, said to me.  Flash forward to 10:30 AM on Monday. I am sitting around a phone in a conference room with six other people.

“For this LIR for SPD, we’re going to start with SPN, then move to SPL then SPK then end with SPA and any final remarks from HQ.”  I stopped. I counted 7 acronyms in one sentence that I didn’t understand. I now understand how Stanford can feel when students throw around terms such as PWR or PHE. Wielding acronyms in conversation makes it easy to speak quickly to those who are familiar with your jargon but nearly impossible for outsiders to enter the conversation. After that meeting, I realized I needed a better sense of what the Corps does (and a little training on acronyms) if I wanted to join the conversation.

Fortunately (and somewhat ironically), one of my projects this summer while working in the planning division of the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is to help run an Intro to Planning Course for new employees. As part of this project, I helped create intro slides explaining how USACE functions. This project answered many of my questions from that meeting on the first day. These slides carefully laid out details of how USACE functions, such as organizational hierarchy, project types, current leadership (both military and civilian), and congressional approval mechanisms. It is said that the best way to fully learn something is to explain it to others; by making these slides, I went through my own version of that process, simultaneously learning how USACE works and creating slides to explain it to others.

From my observation, the Corps makes sure its employees are always improving, whether that’s through classes, conferences, or days to recognize the good work people have done. For example, we drove to San Pablo Reservoir in the East Bay, grilled lunch, played cornhole, and watched the Commander of the division recognize employees for their hard work and years of service.

USACE is a federal agency that operates across the country and in some cases internationally in civil works, military, environmental restoration, and emergency response. USACE has 4 levels: Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works), Headquarters (HQ), 8 divisions, and 38 districts (see map). The divisions oversee the districts, who are working at the ground level on a variety of projects, many of which I had no idea the Corps played a hand in, such as emergency response to hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and wildfire control in Northern California.

I am currently working at the South Pacific Division (SPD), which oversees San Francisco (SPN), Los Angeles (SPL), Sacramento (SPK), and Albuquerque (SPA) districts. Specifically, I work in the planning division, which is responsible for running feasibility studies on potential new projects for the Corps such as restoring wetlands in the Bay Delta and mitigating beach erosion in San Diego County. In my day to day, I have been working on outreach, developing communication plans, slideshows, and brochures about Corps projects and programs. However, some of my favorite parts about working at USACE have been outside of my projects.

From my observation, the Corps makes sure its employees are always improving, whether that’s through classes, conferences, or days to recognize the good work people have done. For example, I was lucky enough to be at SPD for what they call “Engineer Day,” where they celebrate the Corps’ birthday. In this case, we drove to San Pablo Reservoir in the East Bay, grilled lunch, played cornhole, and watched the Commander of the division recognize employees for their hard work and years of service (some over 40 years!). It is heartening to know that I work amongst people who care deeply about what they do but care just as much about those with whom they work.

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