NF graphic for Kush Vashee

Name: Kush Vashee

Credentials: P.E., ENV SP, M.ASCE

Job title: Transportation project engineer

Employer: Rummel, Klepper & Kahl (RK&K)

Location: Fairfax, Virginia

Current ASCE role: TD&I Younger Member committee member, ASCE Mentor Match mentor, National Capital Section Education Committee chair, National Capital Section Younger Members Forum secretary

College: Virginia Tech – bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering

Ever think about how you’d get around without a car? Or if the water you’re drinking is clean? Those things were always on Kush Vashee’s mind while growing up in Ndola, Zambia. In this landlocked, developing country in Southern Africa, resources were extremely lacking.

For 17 years, he watched the town’s critical infrastructure crumble bit by bit. There was limited access to clean water. Due to nationwide electricity shortages, he had to complete homework under candlelight. Inadequate public roads meant insufficient public transportation networks. And the one familiar road Vashee had – the one that led to his family home – would ultimately fade away.

“There was no sort of care taken and that was disheartening. I always thought if I ever got into a position where I could work on projects with roads, I would make sure those things wouldn’t happen,” said Vashee.

Civil engineering would eventually give him the opportunity to build roads that connect people to essential resources. But it would be a lot of hard work getting there. And thanks to his parents, hard work is something that he saw firsthand.

Vashee’s family owned and operated a dairy farm. Seven days a week, his parents would wake up at six in the morning to work. But they never wanted their children to work on the farm. Instead, his parents pushed him and his older brother to focus on education, so they could pursue any career they wanted.

His parents were living examples of good work ethic and selflessness. It was their inspiration that helped pave the road to Vashee’s success. Now he’s using his experiences to build roads literally, and help rising engineers pave their own paths.

“I like to give back because I wish I had some of the opportunities and resources that I see students have right now, and I want to be a part of that. If I can help one person, that’s more than enough to fulfill my career.”

He recently spoke with the Civil Engineering Source about his career.

Civil Engineering Source: What’s the civil engineering accomplishment you’re most proud of so far in your career?

Vashee: My proudest accomplishment so far has been seeing the engineers I mentored succeeding and believing in themselves more.

I’ve been fortunate to have a couple of mentors in my career. I don’t think I could’ve gotten to where I am today had they not invested their time in me, saw my potential, and believed in me.

I always thought I was very lucky. Or that I was in the right place at the right time to get opportunities to lead early in my career and put on more challenging projects. It wasn’t until some people I respect told me that I wasn’t getting those opportunities out of luck. It was because people trusted my abilities and saw that I was capable.

That’s what I want to bring out of the people I mentor. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re truly capable of and getting that little bit of encouragement can really make the difference.

If there was one thing that I could tell my younger self, it would be to stop limiting myself and go after the things that I may not necessarily feel I qualify for or that I am worthy of, because you just never know. You must take those chances on yourself, because if you won’t, no one else will.

Source: What’s something about you that might surprise most civil engineers?

Vashee: Being born and raised in Zambia comes as a surprise because I’ve developed this kind of chameleon American accent. I think that’s because of where I grew up since my parents are of Indian descent, and I went to a high school where the teachers were Zambian, South African, English, and Indian. So I never developed a true Zambian accent. Then when I went to college at Virginia Tech, I kind of developed an American accent.

I think another thing that would surprise a lot of people is that I played competitive golf as a teenager and represented Zambia at the 2010 Junior British Open in St. Andrews, Scotland.

My parents got me and my brother into golf. It was one of the few activities in Ndola that we could do regularly. We didn’t have a movie theater growing up. We maybe had one shopping center, and it wasn’t even like a mall or anything. So, golf was just something you could spend hours doing.

I still play golf to this day. I’m not as good as I used to be, but it’s still fun. Even now, I often catch myself relating a lot of things in daily tasks to golf.

Since golf is an individual sport, you can’t necessarily rely on anyone else, and you can’t blame anyone else if you aren’t playing well. It’s all on you. You have to dig within yourself and think, “How can I get out of this [position]?” or “How can I improve?” There’s not a team of 11 or 22 players to help bail you out, it’s all on you. I learned so much, like respect, how to deal with victory, pressure, disappointment, and to grow as a person.

Source: What makes you excited to be a civil engineer in the 2020s?

Vashee: First is the rise of technology – more ways to improve efficiency and the integration of artificial intelligence into products or software that can use machine learning and automate tasks. I think that’s something that’s not too far in the future and will change the way we work.

Second, a more diverse workplace. I am seeing more key companies, including my own, actively taking on the challenge of DE&I in the workplace. Like every other aspect of the job, I hope that in 2032, I can look back on the last 10 years and see that the small steps that we’re making today have made a noticeable difference. I hope to see more diversity in boardrooms, at industry events, and in the industry overall. I think more people need to see themselves represented.

Having more differing opinions in the industry would spark different types of ideas. I’m sure there are things I’ve experienced growing up in Zambia not many can relate to, but it gives me a different perspective – maybe different solutions to a problem, or insight on challenges that people may not be thinking of.