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National president of NSPS maintains her roots at NWTC

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"It completely changed my life" - Lisa Van Horn, president of the National Society of Professional Surveyors, on her education at NWTC
"It completely changed my life" - Lisa Van Horn, president of the National Society of Professional Surveyors, on her education at NWTC

Lisa Van Horn (Civil Engineering Technician ’94) has gone from high school dropout to national leader, fueled by determination and an education she says meant everything.

“It completely changed my life,” she said recently. “If I hadn’t gone back to get the education I needed to succeed, I would have stayed in food service or bartending and not been there for my son, so it made all the difference in the world to me.”

In April, Van Horn became president of the National Society of Professional Surveyors -- the third woman to take the top spot -- and is the first society president from Wisconsin. That’s a long way from her days as a newly-divorced young mom with a GED certificate, a little boy and an uncertain future.

“I knew I wasn’t going to compete or give my son a good life working 30 hours a week in food service, so that’s why I went back to become a surveyor,” she said. “I felt I would make it work.”

Then came her first math test. “Nearly everyone failed it. I got a C. When I found out that C was the highest grade, I felt much better.”

The challenges continued. When she wanted to find a summer internship, local employers hesitated to take a chance on a female applicant. “I went to all of the businesses in the Green Bay phone book—I was even willing to work for free--and none of them hired me. I ended working an hour away for Sheboygan County.”

The commute paid off. Van Horn received her degree, an Outstanding Student Award, and a job in the Brown County Surveyor’s office, where she met her husband (also a surveyor). After a few years, she was able to start her own business, and several years later, her husband retired to join her company. Now he will keep Van Horn and Van Horn LLC running while she spends her year in office, traveling to chapters and conventions across the United States.

Throughout her career, her enthusiasm for civil engineering drove her to give back, serving NSPS as an officer at the local, state and then national levels.

“Where many [surveyors] like to take their tripods and go into the woods, I’m one that shares easily,” she said. “If you talk to any surveyor, they love their job. I’m good at bringing those expressions out. We’ve gotten more involved in creating more awareness of what the profession is. I know a lot of guidance counselors don’t even know what land surveying is.”

She is also giving back at NWTC, getting to know current students when instructors bring them to local chapter meetings and introducing them to local employers. And Van Horn found a unique way for business leaders and students to mingle, asking employers to pick up the dinner tab for visiting students. Students are encouraged to find and talk to the person who sponsors their meal. The first time she asked for volunteers from employers, she got pledges for 100 meals.

“I’ve made a lot of friends, a lot of contacts,” she said. “It’s satisfying knowing you’ve changed things. It’s satisfying giving back to a profession you really love.”