Profile with Samantha Salvia
Samantha Salvia (Pennsylvania & Jesus 1996) is a civil engineer specializing in water resources planning, most recently as a Senior Project Manager at RMC Water and Environment, a California-based environmental engineering company. Samantha was an NCAA Division 1 field hockey champion. While at Oxford, she discovered Ultimate Frisbee and continued to play for more than 10 years winning multiple national and world championships with her Bay Area women’s team. She holds a BS in Civil Engineering from Old Dominion University, a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University, and an MS in Environmental Fluid Mechanics and Hydrology from Stanford University. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two sons.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite childhood memory?
Samantha Salvia: Some of my fondest childhood memories are with my grandfather, Sam Salvia, after whom I was named. He was an amazing man: he had to drop out of school as a teenager to support his family after his father passed away, but he remained a lifelong learner and renaissance man. Like all good Italians, he had a massive vegetable garden in his back yard, and one summer, when I was young, he cleared a plot of land and told me I could plant anything that I wanted. We sat down with the Burpee seed catalog and I decided I wanted to plant popcorn and mini pumpkins! True to his word, we ordered the seeds and grew them. In the fall, we dried the corn and popped it and used the pumpkins at Halloween. I like that memory because it reminds me of a time when I wasn’t so practical.
Rhodes Project: What was it that most surprised you about studying at Oxford?
Samantha Salvia: I was most surprised by how to study at Oxford. In some ways, I was completely unprepared for the experience, I had a degree in engineering and I was reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Early on, I tried to go to every lecture and read every assigned paper. I spent hours at my laptop writing long and well-cited essays, with modest results. Then, at the end of my second year, I had to take a close friend to the hospital, and I missed the deadline for an essay. I went to see my economics tutor, feeling certain that he was going to give me a pass, because we were leaving the next day. Instead, he gave me a 24-hour extension. I was really annoyed. I went back to my flat and I wrote a really short essay, with no citations; I just answered the question the way I thought it should have been answered. It was the highest mark I received that term. I learned an important lesson.
I was also surprised by the British attitude of ‘effortless superiority’. In the US it is more about hard work, and people take such pride in pouring effort into their studies. When I got to Oxford, nobody wanted to admit they even did any work. That was so strange to me.
Rhodes Project: When did you first become interested in using sport as a tool for social change?
Samantha Salvia: That’s been a recent awakening for me. In 2009 I went to Israel, as part of a newly formed non-profit called Ultimate Peace, to teach Ultimate Frisbee to Jewish and Arab kids. I went with my husband and son, who turned one in Tel Aviv. It was a very formative experience for me in recognizing the power of sports to unite and transcend difference.
I’m also particularly passionate about using sports as a tool for gender equity. I believe that we need more girls playing sports and that we need more women athletes as role models. There are data showing that girls who play sports have better body images, lower teen pregnancy rates, better grades and lower dropout rates. Right now there is a lot of talk about Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. I see sports as a path to improving leadership skills and the ambition gap. It’s been a relatively slow awakening for me, but it’s something that I’m really excited about now as I’m getting involved in that kind of work.
Rhodes Project: What is the most important thing you have learned about life through sport?
Samantha Salvia: Being an athlete is probably the most valuable experience in my life. It has shaped who I am; it’s part of how I became a Rhodes Scholar; indirectly, it’s how I met my husband. If I had to pick one thing, in this moment of my life and with some of the challenges my husband and I are dealing with in parenting, the inner strength that I learned through sports is something that I tap into on a daily basis.
Rhodes Project: You also work as an engineer in water resource management. What’s the most pressing issue that you’re seeking to address in that work?
Samantha Salvia: Fundamentally, the most pressing issue is scarcity, whether it’s scarcity during California’s cyclical drought, or a scarcity of high quality water. I spent the early part of my career at a public drinking water utility in the Bay Area that served about half a million people. I ended up leading that agency’s largest capital project to put in a new drinking water intake to improve the water quality. I took that role when I was thirty, so I had to deal with ageism, sexism – all the issues that a young woman engineer would face leading a project like that. In engineering, even though more and more women are getting degrees, the leadership remains staunchly male-dominated. That’s certainly the case in water in California.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a meaningful journey that you have been on – either physical or emotional?
In the summer between my first and second years at Oxford I went to South Africa on a stipend funded by the Rhodes Scholar Southern Africa Forum, and I worked on a water project in Cape Town. That was my first time in Africa – I lived in the suburbs of Cape Town and I tried as best as I could to integrate into Cape Town life. I joined a field hockey club there, which was a good way to meet people from different ages and different walks of life, and I commuted to my office on a train.
From a professional perspective, that was the first time I witnessed third-world water conditions. I was asked to work on a lake that had become hypereutrophic. The lake was in a wealthy area and they were trying to come up with solutions that involved treating the lake when the problem was that the lake was fed by runoff from a township with no sanitation. I have a clear memory of collecting water samples in a concrete channel that ran through the township wearing waders and rubber gloves while children played in the water barely 10 feet away. It was eye-opening for me on many levels. It helped me begin to understand how water and social issues are inextricably linked and our tendency to want to treat the symptoms rather than the real source of a problem.
Rhodes Project: If you could start your career again, knowing what you do now, would you have done anything differently?
Samantha Salvia: There are things I would have done differently, but I don’t know if I would have fundamentally changed my path. When I look back, one thing that I would have done differently would have been to cultivate my networks more proactively. When I was at Oxford, I was so focused on my course. I don’t think I understood the value of the minds I was surrounded by, the value of networking and making contacts outside my field of study. If I had one thing to do over, I would have been more intentional about making and maintaining those contacts. That is something I continue to work on now, as I’m going in different directions and figuring out my path.
Rhodes Project: What new directions are you considering?
Samantha Salvia: I stopped working about nine months ago to stay home with the kids. It has been challenging for a number of reasons, but there’s no question that it was the right decision. My oldest son has special needs and it became very clear to me last fall that I was needed at home. I spend a lot of time thinking about work-life balance, and I talk about it a lot with my friends – it’s something we all struggle with. I don’t even like the term ‘work-life balance’. It’s really just ‘life balance’ – I’m still struggling with balance even though I’m not working. I’ve decided that I’m taking a long view: there will be periods where I focus more energy on my family, and periods where I focus more energy on work.
It is hard to make that decision. When I was asked to do this interview, I thought “oh, they’re going to profile me and I’m not even working.” But I thought more about it and whether you’re a Rhodes Scholar or not, these are the realities and choices that all parents, women in particular, are facing.
I had impostor syndrome from the moment I won the Rhodes. I was the first Rhodes Scholar out of Old Dominion University, and one of the only scholars studying engineering. Whenever I sit down with other Rhodes women, they often tell me that they felt the impostor feeling too. I still feel that pressure, and certainly when I was contacted to do this interview it all came rushing back. But this is my path.
Rhodes Project: What’s something that you’re looking forward to right now?
Samantha Salvia: We are heading up to Fallen Leaf Lake in the Sierras in two weeks for a family camp. That’s our only vacation this summer. We’re not roughing it – this camp is run by Stanford, and you stay in wooden cabins and there are sheets on your bed. There are college students that watch the kids during the day; it’s heaven, as far as I’m concerned. You can go off and do yoga, and the kids are running around in the woods with college students. It’s perfect.
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