From Army Corps to Peace Corps and back
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t hire people so they can run off to the far corners of the world seeking travel or cultural experiences or new challenges. They hire people because they have an open position with work that needs to be accomplished to move the Corps’ mission forward. However, many people that work for the Corps of Engineers often find that it does present a surprising array of opportunities for travel, cultural experiences and new challenges.
If anyone asked her, 27-year-old Patricia Fontanet would readily and honestly tell you that she enjoys her job as a water resources planner, that she finds the work fulfilling, and is thankful to be working for the Corps’ Sacramento District. But she would also admit that, four years into her position, she was growing restless and was keeping her eye out for an opportunity for growth. Whether that meant applying for grad school or deploying to an overseas assignment, she wasn’t sure, but she was looking.
Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Fontanet said that a big part of her restlessness had to do with starting a career – and her first real job – immediately following college. After all, the then 23-year-old had graduated from Boston’s Northeastern University in May 2016 and reported to work at the Sacramento District just two months later.
“I held a few internships and summer jobs, but my current position in Sacramento District is my first career-level job,” said Fontanet. “I think coming directly from college graduation to the Corps in 2016 definitely played a part in my growing desire to seek opportunities for further development.”
Fontanet said she began monitoring USACE job postings that featured overseas assignments and hoped to find work in a location such as the Corps’ Europe District or Japan District. When she began networking to find a potential position or location that might fit, a recurring theme began to surface. Several colleagues told Fontanet about their experiences working with the Peace Corps, and she began to realize it might be just what she was looking for.
“I was truly inspired by their stories and how they described Peace Corps as this unique opportunity to have real, significant impact in a community while completely immersing yourself in a different culture,” said Fontanet. “I wanted to learn how other countries deal with their water resource issues, and I have always wanted to live and work in a different country for an extended period of time.”
Fontanet decided to take the advice of her colleagues and moved ahead with applying to the Peace Corps. She specifically sought assignments that were aligned with her background and work in the District, and eventually received an offer to serve for seven months as a Disaster Risk Reduction Program Officer in La Trinidad, Philippines.
As a mission with the Peace Corps was coming to fruition, Fontanet found herself growing nervous about one particular aspect of the plan. She had to explain all of this and get permission from her supervisor, Rhiannon Kucharski, then chief of watershed assessment and ecosystem restoration.
Her nerves quickly vanished, however, when Kucharski made it clear she approved of the idea. Not only was she willing to support Fontanet’s application for a Peace Corps assignment, she offered to be a reference.
“I’m a firm believer that we should always find a way to help people explore and find their passions,” said Kucharski.
Still, Kucharski admitted to having some misgivings. After all, she didn’t want to lose Fontanet by allowing her to go to the Philippines.
“At first I had mixed emotions because I thought Patricia was going to leave us,” Kucharski continued. “But I was happy to learn she wanted to stay on with the Corps and that it was only a seven-month mission.”
The timing of Fontanet’s request helped as well.
The section had recently hired a new employee, which allowed Fontanet’s workload to be covered without creating a productivity vacuum. Kucharski then looked at the criteria for granting a leave of absence and successfully pitched the idea up the chain of command.
“I noticed that Patricia’s work assignment with the Peace Corps was closely related to the work she does for us. I also understood that letting her go would mean she would return to the Sacramento District an even more valuable, dynamic employee,” said Kucharski.
Fontanet said she was very grateful Kucharski allowed her to go, and that she was willing to contemplate the big picture.
“She understood that although I would be gone for seven months, I would bring back new skills and a fresh perspective to the District that would make me a better USACE employee in the long-term,” said Fontanet.
With her supervisor’s approval and Peace Corps application accepted, things accelerated quickly for Fontanet. Four months later, Fontanet pulled an airline seatbelt across her lap and departed Sacramento International Airport for the Philippines on September 23, 2019.
Fontanet’s first two weeks were spent at the Peace Corps offices in Manila, learning about Filipino culture and history, taking language lessons, and enduring several health and safety trainings. She was then picked up by her new work colleagues and shuttled five hours north to the mountainous, agricultural region of La Trinidad. Arriving well after midnight, Fontanet said the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Management team wasted no time in putting her to work.
“I arrived in La Trinidad around 1 a.m. on October 5. At 7 a.m., my supervisor – who was my neighbor and host dad – called me for breakfast with his family. By 8 a.m. I was in the office for my first day of work!”
The Philippines is highly susceptible to earthquakes and typhoons, and La Trinidad often faces life-threatening landslides and floods. Fontanet spent the next several months working on projects that allowed her to use her Corps of Engineers-acquired skills to benefit the municipality of La Trinidad. Her primary project, developing a flood study, closely mirrored work she provides for Sacramento District. She also focused on disaster preparedness for the local schools.
“The Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Management office has only six full-time staff and focuses most of its resources into landslide recovery and earthquake preparedness. So there is a need to study flood risk and further educate the public,” said Fontanet. “As a planner in Sacramento District, a regular part of my job is to participate in flood preparedness outreach activities.”
Six months into her assignment, Fontanet still had her sleeves rolled up and was fully immersed in the work of visiting schools, participating in public meetings, making progress on her flood report and more.
But she was about to receive some news that would cut her trip short.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said.
On Friday, March 13, Fontanet and all other Philippines-based Peace Corps volunteers received an email instructing them to pack their bags and return to Manila. They were being sent home. COVID-19 had become a global pandemic.
Fontanet had just 24 hours to pack and say her goodbyes.
Manila was preparing to shutter-up and lock down for at least 30 days starting March 15. With the Peace Corps offices and international airport located there, volunteers were rushed back to Manila to be evacuated to the U.S.
“My assignment was supposed to end on April 22, so I was pulled just over a month early.”
On March 17, Fontanet was finally able to arrange a flight out of Manila, electing to return home to Puerto Rico in order to spend time with family before returning to Sacramento.
Between California’s mandatory shelter-in-place order and the Sacramento District’s partial closure, Fontanet’s quick visit to Puerto Rico stretched into a lengthy period of extremely long-distance teleworking. Using her parents’ home in San Juan as an office, Fontanet returned to full-time work with the Sacramento District on May 18.
Fontanet said it was unfortunate her time in the Philippines was cut short, but believes it was an incredibly valuable six-month experience.
“I’ve already been putting my newly-acquired knowledge to use!” Fontanet said, as her latest project is to develop a post-disaster watershed assessment for the Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands as part of a study for the Honolulu District.
“I’m so grateful the Sacramento District allowed me to go on a Peace Corps assignment. Now I want to make sure I can pay it forward.”
Along with long hours of work, Fontanet was afforded some opportunities to travel, sight-see and learn about the people of the Philippines. She wrote a series of monthly newsletters detailing her journey:
“I enjoyed trying local foods, learning about the country’s complex history, and sightseeing. The Philippines is an undeniably beautiful country. In my free time I enjoyed exploring, taking a bus to the nearest surf town and spending the weekend learning how to surf. Or hiking one of the highest (and most sacred) peaks in the country. Or scuba diving in the country’s oldest marine-protected area, which is also one of the best diving destinations in the world. But I think I’ll miss the people the most. Everywhere we went, we always met locals who were welcoming, friendly, funny, and knowledgeable.”