Although Gloria Jeff (BSE CE '74, MSE '76, MUP '76) may not have fulfilled her childhood dream to become an astronaut (yet), she has done much to achieve one of her lifelong goals: to influence people's lives in a meaningful way.
Jeff discovered that engineering - and the opportunities it could lead to - would allow her to do exactly that. Her education and career experience led her into the world of transportation. "Human beings have to move," she said. "They have to get from A to B, to get grandma to the grocery store or Joe to school or Jennifer to Girl Scouts - people need transportation."
Engineering turned out to be Jeff's means of transport to a position as the general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. She accepted the job very recently. For years she headed up Michigan's Department of Transportation (MDOT).
Her journey started early on, growing up in Detroit with sci-fi novels in hand and astronaut Alan Shepard on television. "Watching him really excited me - it was something I wanted to do," she said. But Jeff was also aware that prejudice might interfere: "I knew that if I wanted to be an astronaut I would have to design my own rocket ship that only I could fly, because if anybody could design it, anybody would go but me because no one in the space program looked like me. That's what ignited my interest in engineering."
She chose Michigan Engineering because it offered a top program and financial aid. In addition, one of Jeff's Sunday school teachers and mentors, Charles Scales (BSE ME '61), was a CoE graduate in mechanical engineering. "He was the only engineer I knew, and he really helped me understand what engineers do. He was also very supportive during my undergraduate experience," she said. As one of just two African-American female undergraduates in the College of Engineering, she found that the experience wasn't always easy. Still, Michigan "was a great environment to learn in."
Learn she did. After receiving her bachelor's degree, Jeff pursued dual master's degrees. It was a period in which she encountered a key turning point - taking a summer internship witl1 the Federal Railroad Administration and discovering her calling: transportation.
She spent five years with metropolitan Detroit's public transit system, then 13 more with MDOT in several roles, including the head of transportation planning. Jeff was then asked by President Clinton to join the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), where she served as deputy administrator and acting head of the agency, overseeing all of its policy activity. After six years she joined the private sector as a vice president with engineering consultancy Parsons Brinckerhoff When Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm took office in 2003, she asked Jeff to lead MDOT. In accepting, she became the first female to head Michigan's - and the first African- American to head any - state transportation department.
As director, Jeff didn't have any such thing as a "typical" week. Her priority was to operate a transportation system that integrated roads, highways, bridges and public transit. She said that the reality for MDOT was that how well the organization maintained the transportation system determined job creation and economic activity in the state.
Jeff isn't sure she'll ever make it into space (she doesn't have uncorrected 20/20 vision, she lamented), but she realizes she has made an impact- and will continue to do so as general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
One of her proudest moments was negotiating an agreement between the FHWA and the Republic of South Africa to transfer U.S. construction technology and training assistance to South Africans. She's been making a difference closer to home, too. She has taught courses at U-M and Michigan State University and garnered numerous awards, including a 2000 Trailblazer Award from the Garrett A Morgan Association at the U.S. Department of Transportation and the 2004 A.D. Gaither Leadership Award, the FHWA's highest civil rights honor. She's also proud that there are hundreds of young people who've heard her speak or seen her in her roles at FHWA and MDOT, and have come away with a different vision, thinking, "If she can make it, I can make it."
When she's not working Jeff loves spending time with - spoiling - her nieces and nephews, reading African-American literature (especially J. California Cooper, Connie Briscoe and Toni Morrison) and watching U-M football "I'm an absolute junkie, a total fan," she said. And, not surprisingly, "I read sci-fi still, too, and I'm a Trekkie to my core."
Originally printed in the Spring 2006 Michigan Engineer, by Kim Roth