Air Force Capt. Jessica Woods '08 finds opportunity at UTSA

Jessica Woods

Jessica Woods '08

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(Sept. 27, 2010)--In 1996, 17-year-old Jessica Woods '08 sent a proposal to the U.S. Air Force. If the Air Force paid her way through college, in return she would serve for the equivalent number of years.

The military accepted Woods' proposal. In 2000, she crossed the stage at Memphis-based Christian Brothers University to accept her bachelor's degree in civil engineering. By 2005, Woods had repaid her debt to the Air Force, serving as a civil engineer at San Antonio's Brooks City-Base and earning the rank of captain. During that time, she managed military construction and environmental programs for Air Mobility Command installations.

As her four-year contract neared its end, the Air Force offered to send her to graduate school. The opportunity led her to weigh her options and choose between Georgia Tech and UTSA. In the end, she decided to stay local.

"I did some research on various engineering schools and on UTSA, and I learned that UTSA's engineering programs are very competitive, particularly in civil engineering, when compared to some of the larger engineering schools," she said.

As a UTSA master's student, Woods studied environmental engineering, water resources, bridge design and pavements. Using a process called wavelet analysis, she also researched airfield pavements and developed a metric that better resembles the roughness an aircraft feels when it traverses a runway. She presented the research in her thesis at the 88th annual Transportation Research Board conference in Washington, D.C.

But Woods was no ordinary master's student. During her second year of study, she gave birth to her son. By necessity, she and her husband developed a strict schedule to serve their growing family. Each morning, Woods dropped off her son at day care, allowing her to spend the day on her homework and thesis.

Meanwhile, her husband worked full-time as an Air Force navigator. When he returned in the evening, they shifted the childcare duties allowing her to attend evening classes. The schedule allowed Woods to maintain a 4.0 grade point average. It also gave her the time she needed to network with faculty and students.

"I went to a small undergraduate school for the purpose of getting one-on-one interaction, and I was afraid of getting lost at UTSA. But that didn't happen," she recalled. "Dr. Papagiannakis, my thesis adviser, was a wealth of knowledge and very supportive of my career and my goals. He really has a passion for engineering and it shows in his interaction with students. He was a tremendous mentor."

Woods also found her fellow students engaging and supportive.

"I enjoyed meeting graduate students who worked in other areas outside of the military," she said. "I liked the networking and cross-talk. I liked learning about the local projects they were working on."

In May 2008, Woods graduated summa cum laude with a master's degree in civil engineering. Shortly thereafter, she was deployed to Iraq, where she spent a year managing construction and facilities policies for the entire theater of operations. While in Iraq, Woods experienced a proud moment when she received an e-mail from home saying the International Journal of Applied Aviation Studies planned to publish a synopsis of her thesis.

Now home from Iraq, Woods reflects on her UTSA experience.

"I took graduate school seriously because I had spent enough time in the profession to see how it applied to my daily life and I really enjoyed the experience," she said. "Assignments didn't feel like homework and were always interesting and challenging. I was excited to learn. I appreciated the education. I was very happy selecting UTSA."