Race, gender, disability?
These women have successfully overcome these obstacles while serving their country.
Keeping People Moving
When she was in her last year at Bradley, Nuria White Fernandez ’82 decided to interview with a Peoria-based company she believed would be a good fit. She thought the interview went well.
But a classmate who had interviewed with the same company warned Fernandez not to be disappointed if things didn’t work out since no one at the firm looked like her.
“Of course, I never got the call,” said Fernandez.
Nearly 40 years later, things were different. It was just after the 2020 election and President Joe Biden’s transition team wanted to gauge her interest in joining the Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA). At the time, Fernandez was the general manager and CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in California, which serves more than 2 million people in Silicon Valley.
After an exhaustive process that included a round of Senate hearings via video conference, Fernandez became the newest FTA administrator in May 2021. The confirmation capped a 35-year career that saw her in high-profile transportation jobs in places like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
“I’ve been constantly breaking through glass ceilings. I am surprised that I haven’t had any stitches on my head,” said Fernandez of her career. “… I’m an Afro-Latina engineer in transportation and that just says it all. Every position I’ve ever held, I was the first … When I started moving into management and then as the head of a department for an organization, I noticed consistently I was the only woman in the room of color, and in some instances, the only woman, period.
“But it also made me realize I couldn’t give up because if I wasn’t there reaching back and pulling others up with me, who will? If not me, then who? At times it felt a bit frustrating that every time they needed to get someone to speak about something or to advocate, they always came to me for that because there was no one else.”
As administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, Fernandez oversees funding for more than 2,000 transit agencies across the country in urban, suburban and rural areas. A variety of governmental entities run the agencies, while federal grants help pay for planning, operations and maintenance, along with rolling stock like buses, trains and ferries. She previously worked at FTA earlier in her career after then-President Clinton appointed her acting administrator in 1997.
Fernandez rode buses daily growing up in Panama, but the private companies that owned them only focused on profitable areas, leaving some people with few or no options.
“When I came to the U.S. and saw how much more organized the bus system was, that it was run and operated by a county, a city or by an authority that had oversight by officials, I said, ‘Wow, this is a good system.’ And interestingly enough, if you go to Panama now, that’s how it’s evolved.”
When Fernandez started at Bradley there were few women engineers, either on the job site, the classroom or even her family. She and her brother, Celso White ’84, were the first engineers and the only siblings among their relatives to be Bradley Centurions. But there were shocks.
“I was thousands of miles away from home … It was my first time living outside of Panama. And not only was I moving to the U.S. by myself to go to college, but I was going to college in a community that was not a major metropolitan area. And it was the Midwest, so it was going to be my first time experiencing winter.”
Despite these bumps, she recalled a campus that taught lessons in and out of the classroom. “They rolled out the red carpet for all the international students. I got to learn about other parts of the world that I was not familiar with and got to know people directly through this program. It was a lot more social.”
She said growing up in Panama, she was unaware of any bias, acknowledging that might be because she wasn’t paying attention. Her parents raised her to believe she could do or be anything she wanted.
“I didn’t grow up in that environment where you constantly have all of your senses in overdrive,” said Fernandez. “Like ‘what did they say? Why did they say it that way? Was it because of me? Was it because of what they think of me?’”
Moving to the U.S., however, meant she had to adjust to a different reality. Her first job after post-graduation work in Panama was with the Chicago Department of Public Works. Starting at an organization with a diverse workforce helped.
“I was paired up with an engineer from Tehran (Iran). My supervisor was from Pakistan. Our overall supervisor was from India, and I worked very closely with two engineers from the Philippines and two from Russia that had just come into Chicago,” said Fernandez, who earned an MBA at Chicago’s Roosevelt University in 1990. “It was a little United Nations, we were all immigrants together and we supported each other.”
This and other career experiences, plus her time at Bradley, showed her the importance of empathy and mentoring. For two decades, Fernandez has been a mentor and worked to connect others with professionals who can mentor them.
“I realize that everyone’s experience is not mine or even similar to mine. And I have to keep that at the front when dealing with different situations,” she said. “… When decisions are made, it’s not the people you know who are in that room, but people who know people. Given the number of women in the transportation field, they’re just not at the management and upper management or CEO level yet.”
While much of the U.S. transportation network focuses on automotive culture and needs, Fernandez said attention on and appreciation for public transportation is growing, even amid concerns about exposure and mask mandates in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to relieving road congestion, it provides options for those who don’t own a vehicle or use ride-sharing services like Uber.
She said the infrastructure legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden November 15 had a substantial investment — almost $91 billion — in public transportation. Fernandez noted how the funds will help transit agencies in underserved rural communities and tribal nations.
“(It will) bring with it more opportunities for those communities … to reach jobs in other areas where the labor rates may be higher, the pay scale may be higher, and educational opportunities outside of their immediate communities.
“We see ourselves as that bridge, the metaphorical bridge between people and access to opportunity,” added Fernandez. “I just think that transportation has a transformational effect on people’s lives.”