It was supposed to be a standard speech at her alma mater.
No need for stress, certainly not intense personal exploration.
Yet here Jazzy Quinabo was, digging deep, at a loss for the answer to this seemingly simple prompt: Why did you choose to be a civil engineer?
Five years into her career, she should probably have a handle on such a basic question, right?
Well, as it turns out, she had more than a grasp of the question. Quinabo realized the answer had been a fundamental part of who she’s been her entire life.
“It brought me back to my childhood in Hawaii,” Quinabo said. “In Hawaii, it’s all about ohana. It’s all about family and community. We have this common understanding that we’re in charge of taking care of each other, the environment and preserving this beautiful world that we live in.”
Quinabo graduated from Punahou School in Honolulu (the same high school that President Barack Obama attended), where social responsibility, environmental stewardship, embracing diversity and being an engaged citizen were emphasized.
“From a young age, that was a huge thing. Embodying the aloha spirit wherever you are, treating everyone, regardless of where they come from, with respect, compassion and kindness,” Quinabo said.
“It shaped me. And also, being Filipino-American, I was taught that it’s all about family, respect and hospitality. We rise together and support each other through everything.
“So, I think that’s why I got into civil engineering. I needed to have a profession that would not just feed and sustain my family but would also feed and sustain my soul.”
Quinabo aced that keynote speech at UC Irvine and continues to inspire with her work as a project engineer for Jacobs in Irvine, California. ASCE has honored her as a 2020 New Face of Civil Engineering.
Finding her niche
One of the defining qualities of Quinabo’s early career success has been her malleability, or as she calls it, “my willingness to raise my hand and get on a rocket ship not knowing exactly where the destination is.”
She’s worked at various stages of the civil engineering project cycle, from market research to stakeholder outreach, from planning and design to both vertical and horizontal construction and now program and asset management.
What might be disconcertingly head-spinning to someone else has been a wonderful way for Quinabo to learn every aspect of the industry and find her right fit.
“I would like to think of myself as a jill-of-all-trades type of person. I never really committed to one facet of civil engineering, and because of that, I’ve been able to open so many doors within our industry that I didn’t know existed. And these doors are unlocking even more doors,” Quinabo said.
“I’m just really proud of myself for having the courage and curiosity to go on these adventures and go through these doors without really knowing what’s behind them. Because historically, I’ve been very risk-averse and super-scared of the unknown. I’m the type of person in Vegas who if I’m winning even just a few dollars more than what I put in, I cash out immediately because I’m scared of losing.
“But I think I’m getting more comfortable and confident in my civil engineering journey, and I think just being fearless and taking charge of my career was what got me this far. I’ve been able to bring in skills that I’ve developed through different leadership roles and past project settings to drive innovation and improvement on current projects.”
That’s not to say it’s been easy. Following a more standard path tends to keep the stress down. But the payoff has been well worth it for Quinabo.
She recently worked on a nine-month assignment for Jacobs that saw her returning home to work on the Hawaii Department of Education’s first statewide facilities master plan for all 261 K-12 public schools. She went island to island, visiting schools and talking with more than 500 community stakeholders over the course of 130 workshops to develop and vet more than 1,000 project ideas.
She’s also serving as an executive advisor for Jacobs’ U.S. west leadership team, gaining new insights into the company’s operations while also providing a young professional’s perspective for new company-wide initiatives, policies and procedures.
“I’m extremely grateful to have been encouraged to explore different fields, engage with senior leaders at Jacobs and work on transformative projects both inside and outside of the office,” Quinabo said. “Every day at work I get to exercise both sides of my brain – the analytical task-oriented engineering side and the creative out-of-the-box thinking side, and that’s what really makes this all so fun.”
In keeping with the same philosophy that led her to civil engineering in the first place, Quinabo has been incredibly active as a volunteer with ASCE and in various professional societies within the Orange County community.
“My parents always told me that you’re never too busy to donate your time, talent and treasure to the world,” she said.
Quinabo has been a Big Sister for three years to a 12-year-old named Kimberly, through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. They hang out a lot, play board games, do arts and crafts, go to the movies and see a lot of shows and musicals together.
“I’m a kid at heart so we have a lot of fun when we’re together,” Quinabo said. “But my main goal is to help her be the first one in her family to go to college. I want to empower and encourage her to find her passions and pursue them.”
Quinabo has also served the ASCE Orange County Younger Member Forum in various roles over the last five years, including her current stint as president. It’s not a coincidence that her half-decade of OC YMF and Branch participation has seen the group grow into one of ASCE’s largest and most active groups in the nation. They sent 33 people to the Western Region Younger Member Conference last month in San Francisco. Quinabo figures to have a large ASCE contingent at her wedding when she gets married to her fiancé, Mark Principe, also a civil engineer, this fall.
“The biggest takeaway is my ASCE ohana and having all these incredible people in my life now,” Quinabo said. “You know they say you’re an average of your friends. If that’s true, I think I’m amazing. All of my friends in ASCE are so passionate, driven and empowered. It’s contagious.”
As she scans the future of her civil engineering career, Quinabo, in her typically organized and perhaps we can call it “Jazzy” way, has broken things down into her “Three I’s” – improve, innovate and inspire.
And now she knows why she chose civil engineering.
“In Hawaii, we say ‘Be pono. Live pono,’” Quinabo said. “Do what’s right for yourself, others and the environment. And by being a civil engineer, I’ve been able to take care of the people and the places that I love.”