Stevens alumna Clarelle DeGraffe ‘84 follows the leadership track at PATH
For Clarelle DeGraffe ’84, newly promoted director of rail transit and general manager of Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH), the journey started at Stevens. A campus job fair introduced her to the many opportunities available with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Amazed by the organization’s extensive network of bridges, tunnels, rail systems, airports, marine terminals and bus stations, she made sure to seek out their table at every networking event she could. Before long, she was on a first-name basis with agency representatives and laying the foundation for a lifelong career.
Born in Haiti, DeGraffe immigrated to the United States at 5 years old, settling in Brooklyn. As a self-described “B-student” at Brooklyn Technical High School, she was skeptical when her guidance counselor urged her to apply to Stevens. Following an entrance interview, she was conditionally accepted to Stevens, provided that she complete the Bridge program over the summer. By the fall, she began her freshman year as a full-fledged Duck, pursuing a degree in civil engineering.
DeGraffe was involved in many activities and student groups, but she found a family on campus through STEP (Stevens Technical Enrichment Program). She credits the staff there with providing her invaluable support both academically and personally, even helping her find tuition funding through scholarship applications and student loans each semester. “I’m realizing now that [support] makes such a huge difference,” she says.
DeGraffe hit a wall in her junior year when the stress of rigorous academics took hold. “I was exhausted, I felt like my brain was fried!” she recalls. When telling her mother of her decision to drop out, she expected a stern reaction. Instead, her mother issued a challenge: “Just give me one more semester and you can quit.” One semester became two, and DeGraffe became reenergized by the thought of her impending graduation. “That was very wise of her, almost like ‘Take baby steps,’” she reflects. “She saw that I was tired, but she really pushed me to complete my goal.” It was a lesson that would endure.
Her transition from student to working professional was smoother than expected as a construction inspector at John F. Kennedy International Airport: “I walked into an office with all white men — all older white men — and it was the most amazing experience! They just took me in like I was their little sister.” DeGraffe learned a lot at JFK, from how to drink coffee to spotting new opportunities for growth. “After about two years of working in [construction inspection], I started thinking ‘I need more than this,’” she recalls.
A colleague inspired her to look into project management positions — it was a lightbulb moment for DeGraffe. “[As a project manager] you really become a decision maker, you’re not just being handed a set of charts and being told ‘Ok, build it.’ You really have input on what goes into the design.”
By 1998, she was a newlywed and deputy program director on the construction of the Northeast Corridor station, part of the Newark Liberty International Airport Monorail extension. In 2001, DeGraffe was seven months pregnant and the station was weeks away from opening when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. She lost 13 colleagues that day.
After taking time off to raise her son, she returned to a Port Authority fundamentally changed by 9/11. Working on the new World Trade Center station had real gravity — it was challenging to navigate political interests, tight deadlines, public expectations and, of course, the memory of the victims. “That project changed my world in a positive way,” she says. “It challenged me technically, professionally — this was a project where either you grew or you got out.” With passion and grit, DeGraffe managed the redevelopment of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub and the World Trade Center Vehicle Security Center. The station opened to the public in 2015.
Taking on leadership roles in the male-dominated construction industry wasn’t always easy. She recalls asking a contractor to move a piece of machinery during a major project. He refused. Minutes later, when a male coworker asked him to do the same task, the contractor quickly obliged. While many would perceive this as a slight, DeGraffe sees it differently.
“I could have gone back and argued — ‘You acted this way because I’m a woman! Or African American!’ but the most important thing is that he moved that truck. That was my idea, and I got it done.” Her patience is the result of maintaining perspective on what is truly important. “There are some times where you need to voice an injustice,” she advises, “but you need to know when it’s going to be for the greater good rather than just your ego. If it is for the greater good, you can set a tone to let people know when they’ve crossed the line.” Her poise, self-awareness and talent for breaking down complex projects into manageable pieces (baby steps, just like her mother had taught) add up to a unique leadership style. With nearly 30 years of experience in a male-dominated industry, she’s witnessed the power of female perspectives.
“There’s more collaboration, more communication, and you end up with a better product because you have that diverse input coming into the team.” She cites mentoring as one of her passions, and is particularly committed to helping women feel more confident in the workforce. “As a young woman, I just didn’t have a voice. I wanted so much but I wasn’t sure of myself. That only comes in time as you gain small victories, but the most important thing is that you keep pushing and not to believe the lies that even sometimes you tell yourself.”
As she continues to push forward in her new role of director and general manager, DeGraffe envisions much more for the PATH: more women in management positions, more train and station improvements and greater rider satisfaction. To her, the most important part of her job will always be the people she serves.
“I have a responsibility to them, and I own that responsibility. It has become my project — a never-ending project.”