Colonel Laurie Richter returned to the Air Force Institute of Technology in June 2021 to serve as the first female dean of the Civil Engineer School. (U.S. Air Force photo by Katie Scott)
Colonel Laurie Richter returned to the Air Force Institute of Technology in June 2021 to serve as the dean of the Civil Engineer School. It is a homecoming for her as she earned her master’s degree in engineering and environmental management from AFIT in 2001 and then served as a course director in the CE school for three years.
“It's just an amazing opportunity to have the ability to come back and contribute in a different role and to know that the fundamentals of what we do, teach, and believe in at the school are still the same,” Richter said.
In her new role, Richter leads a team of approximately 50 faculty and staff who provide technical, environmental and engineering management focused professional continuing education to over 9,000 military and civilian members annually as well as providing the initial skills training for all newly commissioned civil engineer officers.
As an invited member of the civil engineer board, Richter stays connected to senior leadership, strategy, and future plans. “I want to continue the tradition of staying vital, relevant and connected,” said Richter. She believes that the school is even more relevant today because of the dedicated efforts of her faculty to stay connected to their career field through deployments, consulting, and reach-back support. Sometimes the ideas for change come from listening to what the students are doing at the installation level allowing the faculty to shape their curriculum to ensure it remains relevant.
Richter grew up in Michigan and entered the Air Force in 1994 as a distinguished graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology ROTC program. She chose civil engineering because she liked the hands-on aspects of the field, especially explosive ordnance disposal. She was attracted to the leadership opportunities, to do something a little bit different, have a direct tie to the mission, and be outside blowing things up. “Engineers are problem solvers and innovators at our core so it doesn't matter what challenge you throw at us, we see it as an opportunity to excel,” said Richter.
She has served as a group and squadron commander, and has held multiple positions at the base, major command, Air Staff, Numbered Air Force, and Joint Staff levels. She has also supported joint warfighters in both the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of operation.
In a career field where only 16% of civil engineer officers are female, Richter often felt compelled to be more proactive than came naturally to her. “I needed to be a physical presence and a visual representation making sure that my perspective was heard and that I was contributing just as much as everyone else,” said Richter. “My perspective might be different, and it might be good to hear that there's a different perspective in the room so that we don't continue to look at the problem the exact same way. As a whole, we're better as a team when we do that.”
Standing in front of a photo gallery of former CE School deans hanging on the wall of the school, Richter recognizes the impact she can have as the first female dean. “That’s a wall full of people who don’t look like me and it’s an opportunity to show a different picture to someone else who might be wondering if there is a place for them to lead in our civil engineer community and across the Air Force,” said Richter.
“We look at those chain of command walls and rejoice when there's a female on the wall - it's just something subtle. But I'm still the right person at the right time to lead the CE School team here, who just happens to be a female,” said Richter.
Richter is leading a line of effort through the civil engineer officer diversity and inclusion focus group looking at force development. “It is my opportunity to give back and to be a resource for others who don't feel like they have a mentor that looks like them or has the same path as them; to show that things are possible with a little bit of hard work. I didn't feel like I had that as a younger officer. There weren't female role models where I was,” said Richter.
As the senior EOD qualified civil engineer officer in the Air Force, Richter serves on developmental teams helping to monitor and shape the careers of CE officers – especially those officers whose career path may be different. “Officers who are EOD qualified or who have earned a PhD could get lost if we're not making sure they have opportunities and showing that we as a service value the work that they're doing, the education that we're investing in them, and then how we invest that back into their career field and back into the Air Force and back into our installations to make sure that we're all working together as a team,” said Richter. “That’s a role I'm happy to still continue to play and to be an open door when someone has a question about their career.”
As a leader, the opportunity to impact the lives of others has had a meaningful impact on Richter. She still gets notes from former students when she was a CE instructor. “I think those things are all subtle and great reminders that what we do makes a difference,” said Richter.
The comradery among CE professionals lasts throughout their careers, and many times beyond their time on active duty. “As a student and as a faculty member, my AFIT team became my closest friends that I still stay connected to today,” said Richter. “Those relationships I built as a young company grade officer are still relevant today. Relationships are important; take time to invest in them.”