Breaking tradition: Student makes impact in construction field, inspires sons

Now that they’re all Penn State Harrisburg students, Tracy McHenry helps her son Dietrik study calculus and he helps her with chemistry.  Dietrik’s twin, Michael, steps in to help Tracy learn computer programs.

McHenry has no empty nest. Instead her driveway in West Hanover Township, Pa., is full of cars with Penn State bumper stickers. And that’s fine by her.

After many years in construction, in 2011, McHenry returned to college to further her career. This fall her twin sons, Dietrik and Michael Ferster, began their studies at Penn State Harrisburg, too.

Michael’s studying elementary education. Dietrik is following his mom’s field, learning architectural engineering. McHenry is earning her bachelor’s degree in structural design and construction engineering technology with a concentration in construction management.

As a kid, Dietrik loved job shadowing his mom whenever he could, visiting construction job sites and learning about the field.

“I really do like that she took the initiative to go back and get a four-year degree,” he said. “That definitely steered me toward getting a degree.”

Because his mom worked in construction, Dietrik never really saw it as a male field, he said.

Inspired by their mother’s success, both at work and at college, Michael and Dietrik applied only to Penn State Harrisburg, no other colleges. “The school is obviously a great school. My mom’s been very successful,” Michael said.

As for McHenry, after years of being the only woman at a construction site, she now also finds herself the oldest student in class. “I feel like the class mom,” she said, often explaining concepts and directing students what to do next.

“Some of those kids had never been on a construction site and didn’t know about contracts. I brought specifications and contracts in so they could see them. I used my (company’s) construction site up the road for them to walk through. I brought in PowerPoints to show what I’ve done,” she said.

“Older students bring real-world experience to the classroom, giving younger learners an extra perspective,” said McHenry’s adviser, Joseph Cecere, chair of the structural design and construction engineering technology and civil engineering programs at Penn State Harrisburg.

That’s what Penn State Harrisburg senior Gunnar Rhone found. He is McHenry’s intern at TE Connectivity, where she is construction manager of facilities services.

“She works really hard and she tries to make sure I know what I’m doing,” he said. “She kind of seems like one of the guys. She gets along really well.”

McHenry learned early how to thrive in a traditionally male career. In her high school in rural Sullivan County, Pa., McHenry was the only girl in shop class. The teacher encouraged her, and McHenry went on to earn her architectural engineering technology associate’s degree at Penn State Worthington Scranton in 1986. She was one of only three women in her major. Since then, she’s worked for a modular home company and an architect.

“With some workers, you have to earn their respect, especially when they see blond hair sticking out of a hard hat,” McHenry said. “I try to be more of a take charge person so they realize I know what I’m talking about.”

At TE Connectivity, her supervisors have encouraged her educational goals, even asking whether she’ll continue for a master’s degree.

McHenry has taken all the night classes she can. Now she needs to fit daytime classes into her work day and international travel schedule. “I was just in Mexico last week for the renovation of a manufacturing site,” she said.

McHenry knows she’s a role model not only for her own sons but for young men and women in her program.

“I try to really show them how it’s good to set goals and how good it feels to achieve the goals. I take a lot of pride in my work,” she said.

There are a few young women in her major and she especially thinks about them when she brings students to her construction sites. “I think they were inspired that I knew so much about construction,” she said. “I hope I will inspire them.”

Last Updated February 18, 2014