For much of her life, Jennifer Kehl Waters M.Eng. ’93 Ph.D. ’95 has been a “first woman.” The first woman to receive a Ph.D. in ocean engineering from Stevens. The first woman to be a department chair and associate dean at the U.S. Naval Academy, where she spent more than 25 years. Now, Waters is the first woman in SUNY Maritime College’s 147-year history to serve as provost.
She’s the academic leader for the 1,800-student engineering and science college located at Fort Schuyler on the waterfront of the Bronx, New York, surrounded by magnificent views of the East River and Long Island Sound. Waters oversees faculty, student affairs, curriculum, athletics and the college’s medical operations, including its COVID-19 response. (At the Naval Academy, Waters was praised for raising the already high academic standards and improving the graduation rate to close to 90 percent.)
“I’ve always loved the maritime field, and I’m a native New Yorker,” said Waters, who joined SUNY Maritime in July 2020. “The real clincher was the people here. It really has a welcoming and inclusive vibe that drew me in.”
As the college prepares for a full re-opening this fall — with a new training ship, the Empire State VII, set to sail in summer 2023 — Waters recently reflected on her journey to this leadership moment.
You have been a trailblazer throughout your career. Can you talk about what that’s meant to you?
I have mentioned to my husband and my daughters many times: I’m always surprised that I’m the first female “fill in the blank.” Hasn’t someone been here already? The answer often is, not yet. It’s eye-opening. I think having women in these types of leadership roles is really noticed, especially by the students. We here at Maritime have an opportunity to increase our female enrollment, and it is one of our strategic goals, along with increasing the diversity of the overall student body and the faculty.
I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any pressure being the first. You really are representing something new, whereas if you’re one of many, if you stumble, it’s OK. But if you’re the only one, there’s a spotlight on you. You have to do things better.
Why is diversity important in education and the workplace?
When there is no one around who looks like you, and has some of the stressors you have, it can be a lonely place. So just knowing that someone looks like you, and is dealing with some of the same issues that you have to deal with, helps strengthen you and reassure you that you do belong, that you’re not this oddity. I always joke that maybe I’m just strange enough or crazy enough to be the first, to show that it really is OK, that this is a place where we belong. It may sound trite, but diversity does strengthen any organization — diversity of thought, diversity of experience, diversity of perspectives.
Do you think women lead differently than men?
Different people do lead differently. But there are different expectations of women, assumptions that a woman will behave differently, lead differently, and I try to be as true to myself as I can. I don’t know if how I lead or speak or react is more female than male. But it’s me, and what I bring to the table and all my interactions and experiences. It’s probably even more so being the “first” of so many; I do have to listen more than most people — listen and pause. It’s definitely my style that I’ve had to develop throughout my life.
Who has influenced you along the way?
My parents instilled in me a good work ethic and a love of the water. [Growing up on Long Island, New York], we spent just about every weekend in the spring, summer and fall and every family vacation on the water.
Women, from preschool, grade school — I had so many strong and kind female role models. But from undergraduate through graduate school, I had not one female faculty member. There were women there who were strong with whom I interacted, and there were women I met at conferences and other venues who really did inspire me.
The men were also very instrumental in providing a culture conducive to inclusion. That was definitely very apparent for certain faculty members, but not all. To manage to not only thrive in difficult situations but also taking something away from it was really important. It makes me more grateful, thankful, for how everything is evolving.
I have two daughters. I know when they were born, it did strengthen me — and that I wanted to be a part of making a world that will be a little bit better for them. I wish we were further along. But we’ve made some progress. And they are spectacular; I am so proud of them.
Do you have advice for young women (and young men) who are pursuing STEM careers?
The best advice I can give is to be true to yourself, but also reach out and ask for help and look for help, as needed. There’s a whole lot of help out there. I was the first in my family to get a four-year degree, let alone go to graduate school and earn a Ph.D. People use the phrase “imposter syndrome” … I didn’t know the culture of academia. I had to watch and learn and listen quite a lot. Did I feel imposter syndrome? Definitely, early on. Here at Maritime College, a high percentage of students are first-generation college students. I tell them, “You’re not the only one. Get help where you need it. It will strengthen you.”
What do you feel are some secrets to your success?
I’ve never had a fixed plan. I always looked at the options that were in front of me and tried to make the best decisions at that moment. My husband would say that I am extremely tenacious and determined, and that’s true. I don’t back down from a challenge, I don’t give up. I have been told that this can’t be done, I’m crazy enough to keep trying, in spite of doubters and naysayers. Be flexible, adaptable and determined.