Sep 12, 2023

Building a Bridge Home


Kylie Stoltzfus

A profile on engineer Tarah Driver, how our homes build us, and how we build them back

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Tarah Driver

Tarah Driver’s earliest memories took place around construction sites in Honolulu, Hawaii, where she was born and raised. Her father was a carpenter, and often found a corner of his job site to be safe enough to let his daughter play with coloring books or hammer nails into scrap wood while he worked.

In high school, Driver invested her time in liberal arts subjects, thinking she might pursue a career in international relations, law, or architecture. Conversations with people a few years ahead swayed her toward engineering, with a role model and female engineer ultimately convincing Driver to realize the work she hoped to engage in aligned more closely to engineering than to architecture. Following that conversation, all of her college applications were for engineering programs. 

At the same time, Driver also grew up hearing secondhand stories of city adventures from her mother’s college best friend, who resided in New York and wrote for the New York Times, thousands of miles from Hawaii. 

Driver explained, “Growing up in Hawaii, a lot of people tell you that the biggest metric of success is leaving, proving that you can make it, and then coming back home. Which is exactly what I did.”

It was the combined allure from female mentors, engineers, and storytellers before her that motivated Driver’s decision to apply to schools in New York City. Aftering getting accepted to New York University in Brooklyn, Driver relocated to the East Coast to pursue a degree in civil engineering with a focus in construction management. 

Just as those who planted the dream in the first place, Driver’s college program was an environment where many women visibly excelled and were encouraged in their pursuits, despite construction and engineering being traditionally male-dominated fields. She felt “really lucky to be in that environment.” 

It was an encouraging foundation ahead of a seemingly inevitable loneliness. As a female in the field, Driver relied on her intentionally-built relationships while also cultivating strong personal and professional connections, as she had during her education.

“Growing up in Hawaii, a lot of people tell you that the biggest metric of success is leaving, proving that you can make it, and then coming back home.

“When I first got into the workforce, I had one female friend who started the exact same day as me, at the exact same [project]. She and I were attached at the hip from that day forward,” Driver said. “I had her, but there was just a constant influx of testosterone that made my job just a lot harder because I felt like I had to suppress parts of myself in ways that were exhausting.”

“In the last year, I feel like I got really, really lucky with people in my direct friend group and within my professional network, [because now] there are people that I would call if I was having a panic attack on site, or who I will travel two hours into Jersey to go to a birthday party for… If you were to ask me the whole ‘women in construction’ question this time last year, I probably would have been really pessimistic about it, but at this point in time, I feel like I’ve gotten really, really lucky with the people I’ve met who have made it feel a lot less daunting.” 

People and luck seem to be the anchors Driver returns to as she describes her career path—perhaps anchors we all have a familiarity with following the pandemic, which hit the year Driver completed college. She was assured she would still have a job following graduation, but she, like so many others, struggled to cope with the massive shifts in everyday life. Living in a small apartment in New York City, Driver began to feel isolated and anxious. The city that used to feel expansive and lively now felt small and quiet.

 “I’ve always considered myself to be a very independent person, but [the pandemic] was very striking… Our street [used] to be filled constantly with people walking or driving by, playing music super loudly, [and there was a] park across the street where parents would take their kids after school everyday… Instead of hearing all of those noises, it was just ambulances. It hurt my head and my heart in a lot of ways.” 

She took the opportunity to pause and return home before fulfilling her New York dreams. In her healing and resting, enjoying the deeply familiar traditions and culture, she noticed more of her home’s own needs, and grew a vision of what’s possible for her home state. Another return to Hawaii later into her career “reinvigorated a lot of those long-term goals and visions,” Driver noted. 

“I’ve learned a lot about the type of relationships it takes to be successful back home, and have grown to have immense respect for people who have made the hard choice to stay home, develop their opportunities there, and continue growing the state to its fullest potential.”

Driver reflected on her home community, and her consequent long-term vision to move back to Hawaii and work to build into the local economy, rooted in a desire to give back to the place and the people that raised her, shaped her, and informed her understanding of what she is capable of contributing to the world. Similarly, she wants to use that formula she was originally handed—to leave and learn—to instead reinstill value in her home state.

“There’s one catastrophically horrible project that has gone so far over budget and so far over schedule that it’s lost a lot of the state of Hawaii’s confidence in what a mega-project could be, and what it should look like… I would love to take what I’ve learned from New York—and hopefully from other places I’ll go along the way—[and] hopefully start to bridge that gap.” 

In the meantime, Driver has set professional goals for herself and handily accomplished them. Through her employer, Skanska, she has worked on several of New York’s most notable landmarks—parts of the World Trade Center, City Field Stadium, LaGuardia Airport, and currently, Penn Station. 

She’s invigorated by the idea that her work directly impacts the millions of people who transit through New York City’s transportation hot spots every single day. It’s particularly inspiring considering it was the same thought that carried her through college—when an overwhelming workload or the idea of becoming an engineer veered on impossibility, Driver would wander the city, admiring the steel and concrete reminders of those who came before her, who carved out landmarks and global recognition.

Instead of hearing all of those noises, it was just ambulances. It hurt my head and my heart in a lot of ways.

“There are so many amazing bridges around here,” Driver reflected. “Really, [they’re] like the focal points and visual metaphors for how I survived… I [would be] on a panic stroll between study sessions for exams, and I would meander my way over to a park and just spend 20 minutes sketching out a bridge.”

She marveled, “You can see [people] by the thousands transiting across it on a daily basis, and somebody at some point had that idea before [it] existed… The person who [built] that was where I am now, at one point.”

Where she is now, she attributes largely to the people who laid similar foundations and ideas in her personal life—the influence of her parents, critical conversations with mentors, encouragement from teachers. Driver explained, “I love having an artistic kind of goal to work toward, but I usually need some sort of help and active conversation to get there.” 

Some of her success, however, she attributes to simply being at the right place at the right time—like her informal daycare on her father’s job sites. Perhaps for the opportunity and practice of watching the commute of thousands on transits that her fingerprints now grace, she has an acute awareness of the kindness and coincidence of it all.

“One of the pieces of advice I got from a mentor was that he would always rather be lucky than smart. [That] didn’t make sense to me for a long long time, [but] I think about a lot of the people I’ve met in chance encounters… Part of that does come from openness, but part of it is definitely luck,” Driver said. “I’ve put a lot of effort and time into cultivating technical pieces, but so much of what I’ve done and seen is informed by just where I happen to be at a certain time.”

Ultimately, Driver carries a humility about what she’s capable of and what she can offer, with a lot of heart and hope behind her skill. Her concept of home and the reverence she’s grown for it remains a core motivator and goal in her career, and is also a large part of her sense of luck and circumstance, noting, “[Hawaii] is a very special state that I feel extremely privileged to call my home, and I don’t take that for granted for one second.”

“I think it’s a little bit selfish and a little bit self-centered for me to say that I can bring my—as one person’s—experiences back to the state that I love so much and that raised me, and bring that talent back home,” Driver laughed. “But that’s exactly what I want to do—long run, endgame—is take all these skills, lessons, stories from people that I’ve met here, and help build amazing things back home that will hopefully make a positive impact.”

Kylie Stoltzfus is a writer, journalist, and filmmaker based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Kylie loves telling stories of people who are committed to making a difference in their community. Kylie is a big fan of beer gardens, throwing dinner parties, and spending Saturdays drinking endless cups of coffee & writing in her pjs.