Punahou Bulletin

A Magazine for the Punahou School Family

Winter 2018

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Dawn Barsana ’94 Szewczyk

Civil engineering wasn’t the career that Dawn Barsana ’94 Szewczyk had envisioned. With her love of drawing and building, and her strength in math and science, she expected to be an architect.


Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Collectively, these disciplines form the acronym STEM – an integrated approach to teaching and exploring these fields of study. In these pages, three women are featured who have defied gender stereotypes in their respective fields and forged successful careers in industries that were once predominantly male. In doing so, they have paved the way for future generations of young women and inspired the next wave of the world’s problem-solvers.

Read additional stories in this feature by Arlen Kam ’05 and Constance Ramos ’79.

By Cynthia Wessendorf

Civil engineering wasn’t the career that Dawn Barsana ’94 Szewczyk had envisioned. With her love of drawing and building, and her strength in math and science, she expected to be an architect.

Szewczyk and a colleague oversee plans for construction of a shore facility restoration project at Navy Region Center Singapore.

But her Academy Dean Robert Badham, now retired, steered her toward her future field, which she studied at Loyola Marymount University. It was a great piece of career advice, opening up unexpected leadership opportunities and a gratifying sense that her work really matters.

“Engineers are called the problem-solvers of the world,” says Szewczyk. “We make sure that people are safe, that the infrastructure is solid, that we have access to clean water. So often it’s overlooked and forgotten.”

She enjoyed the underlying science and mission-critical component of working with water and wastewater infrastructure, experienced while working as a project engineer in the Bishop Street offices of the global firm CH2M HILL. After a decade building her technical skills in the private sector, Szewczyk landed the job of business analysis engineer with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command at Pearl Harbor, initially working on a massive water and wastewater project, and later shifting her focus to strategic and budgetary matters.

Her analytical mind, cheerful outlook and gift for bringing people together on complex projects quickly propelled her to a new position, asset management program manager for the Pacific Air Forces Command, where she pulled in funding in the $500 million range.

Her career trajectory continues – this time far from home. Days after Christmas, Szewczyk, with her husband and two young sons, moved to Singapore, where she accepted an overseas assignment as assistant regional engineer for the Navy Region Center Singapore. She is the first woman to hold this managerial position, a potentially daunting prospect in a male-dominated field, and in an unfamiliar part of the world.

But challenges are growth opportunities, she notes. The real difficulty is leaving so many people and organizations behind.

Szewczyk says that “It’s going to be hard for my mother,” who will miss grandkids La‘akea and Kainalu. But it was her mother’s dream that Szewczyk live abroad, and her late father’s source of pride that she pursued engineering. Family pressures had forced her dad to abandon his own engineering studies in the Philippines.

For Szewczyk, the move has meant temporarily letting go of community and professional ties, including her role as the first woman from Hawai‘i to serve as regional governor of the American Society of Civil Engineers; serving on the boards of Good Beginnings Alliance and the Punahou Alumni Association; and acting as a mentor for the Wo International Center’s Student Global Leadership Institute.

“These leadership roles have really helped me establish relationships,” says Szewczyk. “Because the roles are easily recognized in both the government and the private sector, people feel more comfortable with your caliber of knowledge and experience.” Wise counsel for young professionals trying to gain traction in their careers.

For women considering technical professions and concerned about the gender gap – only 12 percent of engineers and 6 percent of engineering managers are women – Szewczyk remains unfazed, having found supportive workplaces, lots of female colleagues and an evergreen industry.

Szewczyk is busy now settling into a new country and new job. But managing pier maintenance and energy conservation efforts are not her only goals. Next on the agenda: growing the PAA’s international network. She’s a new face in Singapore’s alumni circles and an inspiring example of how far, and how quickly, a career in civil engineering can take you.

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