Tabitha Turner: From hoops to highways — and beyond

Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Lady Jackets forward Tabitha Turner

If life is a banquet, then Tabitha Turner, CE '10, intends to savor everything on the menu. And she’s off to a good start.

The 26-year-old Miami native earned undergraduate degrees in business and in civil engineering at Georgia Tech – one, while on a full basketball scholarship – and has twice placed in the Miss Illinois USA Pageant. (She’s a serious contender for next year’s title.)

Meanwhile, she’s got her sights set on earning an MBA, but is also preparing to tackle the fiercely competitive Professional Engineer (PE) exam this coming spring. (She passed the Engineer In Training exam this spring).

And did we mention that she works full-time as a project engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT)?

“As an athlete, I’ve learned to know my limits and set realistic goals for myself. I've also learned how to push myself. That gives you a certain confidence,” says the former forward for the Lady Jackets.

“I like to be that person that people said ‘Oh she can’t do that’ -- and then do it. Because what I learned at Tech was, you can do anything you set your mind to. The challenge is more in you mind than anything else. You just have to set the goal and work hard.”

Turner admits that her personal philosophy sometimes sounds cliché to strangers, but she doesn’t back down. Her personal history backs her up: Tabitha Turner works hard and dreams big.

Knowing that she wanted to enter Georgia Tech’s civil engineering program, she devised a plan whereby she finished her business degree (and a marketing certificate) under her basketball scholarship. With the support of her coach, Machelle Joseph, she then worked as the team’s business manager during a fifth year, while she began her civil engineering degree. Taking as many as 18 credit hours a semester, she graduated with that second degree in 2010.

Third Runner-up, 2013 Miss Illinois USA

“I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed the math part of civil engineering, but the construction and the transportation classes had a lot of project management skills that I had learned in my business degree. And they related to everyday issues, things that I thought were important.”

Turner’s goal-setting strategies helped her triumph over a sometimes grueling civil engineering program.

“Every semester that I was enrolled, I’d set the goal of finishing. My advisors would look at me and ask me if I didn’t want to ease up a bit on the schedule, because they didn’t want me to burn out. But the way I saw it, I was an out-of-state student, paying out-of-state tuition. I was motivated.”

Helping her keep focused were her friends from Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., where Turner had served as treasurer.

"Sometimes people would ask me why I didn't drop my sorority work, to have more time for studying. But my sorority sisters helped me get through it all."

That support notwithstanding, it was Turner alone who impressed the IDOT recruiters who visited campus her senior year. A few months later, with a civil engineering degree in hand, she was off to Chicago to begin her next adventure.

As a new employee, Turner was entered into IDOT's two-year training program, which introduced her to three different engineering specialties – construction, land acquisition, and traffic signal engineering.Turner has recently settled on construction as her field, and has since been chosen to participate in the agency’s elite PACE (Professional Advancement for Career Engineers) program.

“It’s a program that teaches you the skills to be a leader,” she said. “I will network with people who can help me develop as an engineer.”

When she’s not working (or studying for the PE exam), Turner continues to work on her goal of winning the Miss Illinois USA Pageant 2015. She has reason to be optimistic.

In 2012, when she entered her (first-ever) pageant), she placed top 15 in a field of 102. In 2013, when 116 women competed, she garnered the third runner-up prize, which carried with it a $40,000 scholarship – money she hopes to be able to apply to her graduate degree in business. She also got an unexpected perk: a specially commissioned replica doll, made in her image.

“That’s supposed to be just for the winner, but when they found out that I have a collection of over 100 Barbies, they agreed to do it,” she said. “It’s something that I can keep and frame as a memento of the pageant.”

Turner hopes that an eventual pageant win will allow her to do more public speaking on her platform theme – women’s empowerment. But if a crown is not in her future, she figures she’ll just live that theme.

“I’m hoping to start graduate school sometime in 2015 or 2016 so that I can bring together my engineering and my business knowledge,” she said. "That's my goal."

Future Miss Illinois USA and future....? Stay tuned.