Kathleen Donnelly: engineering director at NAVAIR
Despite a counselor who told her to avoid science, her support system and abilities led her to an executive post at her Navy location
Kathleen Donnelly always enjoyed science. But in high school, her guidance counselor discouraged her. "She told me I'd probably have an easier time if I didn't go into a science field," Donnelly remembers. "So I switched counselors, and I got someone who was more proactive and encouraging in his thinking. It was surprising that the one who discouraged me was a woman but the one who encouraged me was a man."
Donnelly is engineering director of the Support Equipment (SE) and Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment (ALRE) department of the Lakehurst, NJ location of the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR, Patuxent River, MD), a post she has held since 2008. "This is the only executive position in Lakehurst," Donnelly explains.
She has spent twenty-eight years at NAVAIR, arriving right after her 1984 graduation from Villanova University (Villanova, PA) with a BS in chemical engineering.
Originally from Pennsylvania, Donnelly excelled at math and science and was encouraged by her parents to pursue technology. "They expected my older brothers and me to go to college," says Donnelly. "There was no question about it."
She ranked near the top of her high school graduating class and, like her three brothers before her, enrolled at Villanova. "It was a great experience. I struggled a bit," she admits, "but I got good grades. I was paying my own tuition and had to take some time off to earn a little more money so I was at Villanova for five years rather than four. The professors were very supportive and genuinely wanted me to succeed."
She remembers that there were only five women in her class of thirty-five but says she didn't really notice it at the time. "Even today, I don't pay attention to the proportion of males and females in the room. Maybe it's because I come from a big family," she smiles. "Everybody was treated the same."
When she graduated, the job market was tough. "When I began studying chemical engineering in 1979, all of that year's seniors were finding jobs right away. It was a great field to go into," she says. "But five years later, things had flip-flopped. Job offers were fewer and the ones I got were mainly from companies in the south and the Midwest, and I didn't want to leave the Philadelphia area."
One of her professors was a consultant for the Navy and asked her if she would be interested in interviewing there. "I had this preconceived notion that I wouldn't like it," she said. When she was told that she could be there as a civilian, Donnelly still balked. "He encouraged me to give it a shot and said I might find it rewarding. I interviewed and got a job in 1984 as a cryogenics support equipment engineer. It was a good fit for my degree.
"My plan was to work here for three years and then try to find a job in private industry, but twenty-eight years later, here I am! It's a fun place to work. When I joined, there were a lot of people my age coming in so it was like a college environment. The work was very interesting and we did everything: science and technology, design work, test and evaluation, in-service support.
"There is something for everyone here, lots of opportunities to do different rotational assignments and find your niche. These are hard workers dedicated to making sure that the sailors and the Marines get the support they need. There is a real sense of accomplishment when you can help the fleet."
Donnelly adds that educational opportunities are another perk. "I earned my MBA from Monmouth University (West Long Branch, NJ) in 1991 and only paid for about half of it.
"I thought an MBA would be a good combination with my technical degree, helping me to lead an organization. It was a wise decision," she affirms. "My MBA courses allowed me to understand things like financial management. Without it, I wouldn't have had as easy a time picking up on the different areas of responsibility that I was given here."
After eight years in cryogenics, Donnelly became a program management team leader in the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division. "At this point, I had my MBA, had taken a few leadership classes and was in a management development program," she explains.
She asked her boss what she needed to add to her portfolio to get promoted and he recommended that she go back into engineering. In 1998, Donnelly took a supervisory position overseeing about two dozen electrical and mechanical engineers, who planned and managed assets including personnel, processes and facilities.
In 2001 she returned to program management, responsible for planning the lifecycle management, development and acquisition of aircraft launcher equipment. In 2004, Donnelly was assigned as a deputy program manager, providing technical expertise to support the installation, operation, overhaul and certification of 2,000 deployed ALRE systems worldwide.
Today Donnelly is back in engineering. She manages over 1,300 civilian and military professionals across twenty-two sites around the world, providing technical direction and guidance for SE and ALRE programs critical to naval aviation. About ten division heads report to her directly.
"I am responsible for making sure that the products that we are giving to the sailors and Marines are of the proper quality, safe, and delivered on time and within budget," explains Donnelly. "We make sure that the technical products are not over-designed or more than required, but sufficient and technically accurate."
Donnelly received the NAVAIR Commander's Award in 2007. She is active with the organization's Women's Advocacy Group, and led NAVAIR Lakehurst's first annual Women Moving Forward symposium in 2011. She is also active in the national Women in Defense organization (Arlington, VA).
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