From Hurricane Katrina to north St. Louis, civil engineering grad helps ravaged communities rebuild

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On September 6, 2017

Stephanie Hall. Photo by Sam O’Keefe/Missouri S&T

As a single mother paying her way through college, Stephanie Hall’s early lessons in hard work weren’t confined to Missouri S&T classrooms.

By the time her still-groggy classmates arrived for 8 a.m. classes, Hall had already worked the 5 a.m. shift baking doughnuts at Kroger. After morning classes came lunch-hour waitressing gigs. Nights and weekends meant not only homework and time with her young son but also more work as a waitress and bartender.“One job paid for childcare. One job paid for rent. One job paid for tuition,” says Hall, who earned her first S&T degree, a bachelor’s in economics, in 1990.

After graduation, the New Orleans native who grew up down Interstate 44 in Lebanon, Missouri, took a job in St. Louis as a financial adviser but remained in Rolla with her then-husband, a college classmate. At 28 and by now a mother of three, Hall returned to her alma mater to pursue the engineering career she had envisioned as the young daughter of an oil field worker for petroleum industry giant Schlumberger.

The work ethic she honed in her first go-round as a non-traditional undergraduate continued. In addition to taking classes and raising her young family, Hall worked nights at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and weekends, once again, tending bar and waitressing.

All along, she followed the career advice of her mother− a psychiatric nurse who still works fulltime – to zig where others would zag, and to view the absence of many female role models in her chosen field not as a disadvantage but instead as a challenge.

“Do not go into any field dominated by women,” her mother told Hall. “You will have more opportunities in male-dominated fields.”

Hall took those words to heart. Armed with a second bachelor’s degree, this one in civil engineering, she embarked on a 23-year career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that has included leadership posts in Afghanistan, Germany and South Korea, as well as overseeing Hurricane Katrina recovery and reconstruction in her hometown.

The Army Corps affiliation began with a part-time job at its St. Louis district office while still in school. Her fourth child, now a Missouri S&T senior, was born in 1995, her last year on campus. Hall’s only daughter, Antoinette Hay,  also graduated from S&T –and followed her mom into the Army Corps of Engineers after graduation.

“She persevered even when she felt she was failing,” says Hay. “She never gave up. She stayed the course and plowed through all the walls instead of going around. She’s more brute force than finesse.”

“You’ll pay attention to her because she’s too good at what she does to ignore, she’s always been that way.”

Two years ago, eager for both a new professional challenge and the desire to live closer to her three grandchildren (with a fourth on the way), Hall joined the Corps’ Kansas City district office to oversee USACE Mega-project N2W – or, in non-bureaucratic lingo, the $1 billion-plus design and construction of a western regional headquarters of the super-secretive National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

The NGA has called St. Louis home for more than 70 years, with its current regional headquarters near the Anheuser-Busch brewery south of downtown. Federal officials selected the new site in north St. Louis over a location near Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County, Illinois, 25 miles east of the city.

St. Louis community leaders hope the new spy complex, which is slated to open as soon as 2022, will anchor an urban rebirth in an impoverished urban corner that includes a razed high-rise public housing complex, Pruitt-Igoe, which became shorthand for the failure of mid-20th century social policy.
Those outsized expectations don’t deter Hall, who now finds herself in what is likely the most highly visible public role of her career.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to work in the community,” Hall says. “We’re going to build a facility with more than 3,000 workers …. That changes the dynamics of the community.”

As a senior government engineer, Hall’s project management bona fides include building temporary “cities” for military operations (“everything from sewage treatment and water and electrical distribution to all the buildings”) to supervising more than $5 billion worth of planning, design and construction in Afghanistan war zones.

“I like the challenge,” she says of her penchant for complex projects. “I like the dynamics, the multiple partners, the multiple stakeholders and the moving parts. I like the push and pull to start and finish.”

Hall is also mindful of her own status as the type of role model whom she saw very little of earlier in her career, including at the university. In her case, that means promoting both the humanitarian and the public service aspects of her profession.

“In civil engineering, at the end of the day, through one way or the other, you’ve improved somebody’s life – their standard of living, their quality of life, their quality of work. Even if it’s just the roads they’re driving on. At the end of the day, it’s public service. You’ve contributed to the public well-being.”

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