Real Talk: Rebecca Whiteside

Whiteside38105-011 (2)Ever wondered how your required college composition courses will benefit you once you’re in the “real world”? Ever wondered how important reading and writing skills are to graphic designers, nurses, or social media marketing experts? I’ve started this series, Real Talk, to give professionals in a variety of industries a chance to share why reading and writing are so critical to what they do.

Today, we’re profiling Rebecca Whiteside, a Geographic Information Systems Specialist at engineering firm Yamabe & Horn. She tells us how important reading and writing are to what she does, and how she might just have helped avert a small zombie apocalypse with her skills.

Describe your job.

I work for Yamabe & Horn Engineering, a private engineering company, as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Specialist. In layman’s terms — I make maps. They range from simple exhibits showing the location of a project site to complex map series showing city-wide utility systems. In this capacity I use writing mainly to communicate via email with clients and other employees and it is important to be able to do this clearly and concisely. I also need to be able to read written descriptions of spatial information and translate that to a final product that can be visualized. For example, I often use the legal description of a property to draw a property line exhibit showing the property lines visually.

What kind of reading and writing do you do on an everyday basis?

I regularly make map exhibits for grant applications and, in an effort to make myself indispensable, expressed an interest in helping to write the applications themselves. Yamabe & Horn Engineering does the city engineering for many of the small, cash-strapped cities in the San Joaquin Valley where grant money is an important source of funding. I am currently writing an application for the City of Parlier applying for Active Transportation Program funding from the Fresno County Council of Governments. The Active Transportation Program is a state-wide program that aims to encourage alternate forms of transportation in order to improve air quality and community health. The City of Parlier is seeking funding to improve signage and crosswalks at intersections near local schools so that students have safe routes to walk or bike to school. I have also written applications for funding to widen streets to accommodate sidewalks and bike lanes, to install special filtration systems in households where well water is contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic, and to construct benches and shade structures at local bus stops. Though the applications are considered on the merits of the projects themselves, conveying the needs of the client clearly and concisely helps to procure this funding.

Why are these skills so important to being successful in your work?

One of my first projects at Yamabe & Horn was helping with an erosion control study for Clovis Cemetery. The Cemetery has a small waterway running through it which creates a tranquil atmosphere perfect for profound reflection but also causes enough erosion that it threatens to un-inter some of the cemetery’s interred. I created a series of maps showing which areas where in danger of resembling the set of the Night of the Living Dead and what preventative measures could be taken. However, because the program that I use to create maps does not include a spellcheck feature I was unaware that “Cemetary” was not in fact how one spells “Cemetery.” This was caught by someone else before the maps were delivered to the client but I was certainly embarrassed. Mostly I included this anecdote because that project was awesome. I am fairly certain I may have prevented the zombie apocalypse and improved my spelling in the process.

What advice do you have for students, particularly college students in first- and second-year writing classes?

I have two pieces of advice for writing students. The first is to write about something that you personally find interesting whenever possible. The second is to thoroughly proofread everything you write. Proofreading is tedious, but hopefully less so if you followed the first bit of advice.

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