Sometimes Serenity Wolf will gaze across Main Street from the upstairs offices of Stevens & Associates in downtown Brattleboro, her eyes trained on Elliot Street across the way, scoping out the Taylor for Flowers shop.
She’ll look for the Unwins — Dan and Alva-Jean — owners of the florist shop that’s been in business since 1947. If her parents are visible out front, she’ll smile warmly inside, a memory jogged, perhaps, from the years she worked there starting when she was 12. Memories like skipping school on crazy-busy Valentine’s Day to give her parents an extra hand behind the counter.
The shop is merely several paces from where Wolf, 33, a licensed professional civil engineer, is team leader for the civil engineering department at Stevens & Associates. Yet she traveled thousands of miles, studied for thousands of hours, endured living in the sopping humidity of Florida and the blazing desert of Las Vegas, before beelining back to her roots in 2015. She lives in Chesterfield with her family — husband, Sean, a data scientist at Liberty Mutual Insurance in Keene, and sons Carl, 9, and Henry, 7 — not far from the Chesterfield Inn, where they married fresh out of college.
She is a tireless advocate for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, working with local students and schools. That passion is manifested through volunteerism. Wolf developed a career shadowing program at S&A for students considering a career in architecture or engineering; she recently directed and implemented an introduction to drafting class for students at St. Michael’s School in Brattleboro; she is particularly focused on mentoring young girls in STEM-related fields, which are generally dominated by men.
“I love sharing knowledge and helping people be successful. The satisfaction of accomplishing something is such a tremendous feeling,” she says. “When you have that ‘ah-ha!’ moment when you get to the ending — and have the calculations to prove it — that’s what I love passing on.”
This isn’t Wolf’s first go-round at S&A. She interned there as a student and was duly impressed with the company’s president, Bob Stevens, and how he promoted interaction with the community. Years later, time and place merged when Stevens reached out to her while she and Sean were scurrying around Vegas halfheartedly seeking to put down roots. The beckoning home was irresistible.
She joined the firm as a civil engineer in the fall of 2015 and her responsibilities mushroomed into team leader. She oversees IT management; manages mentoring and training and is involved in recruiting; is an adviser for environmental permit regulations; participated in multiple strategy sessions with the state to update the Vermont Stormwater Program as an expert in stormwater regulations.
“I love the mission of this company. I love working on projects that make an impact in our community,” she says.
Wolf always loved math. She found it soothing that numbers problems had ironclad answers. Gene Whitney, then a teacher at Brattleboro Union High School, recognized her ambition in 7th grade, and recommended the Women in Technology course at Vermont Technical College, a weeklong program for girls that concentrates on STEM subjects. Now she comes full circle. This summer she will be a tutor in the Rosie’s Girls Day Camps run by the college, a STEM leadership camp.
“I’m back and I’m ready to volunteer — it’s my turn,” Wolf says.
As a senior, Wolf was accepted into Vermont Technical College’s VAST program which combines high school and freshmen-year college courses and allows students to earn a two-year associates degree. She was valedictorian. That propelled her to Norwich University in Northfield for her final two years of college, where she was a rarity: not part of the Corps of Cadets and a woman majoring in engineering.
“It made it challenging. I didn’t fit in but fitting in didn’t really bother me a lot; so, I was okay with that,” Wolf says.
She was so intent on her studies at Norwich that she paid little attention to the guy sitting behind her in class — the one who came to Vermont on an ROTC scholarship from the Seattle area. But mutual friends noticed. They thought Sean Wolf and Serenity Joy Unwin would make a perfect match. They married immediately after graduating from Norwich.
And so the newlyweds left bucolic Vermont in 2007 for Fort Walton, Florida, where Sean would start his 7-year active duty stint with the Air Force and Serenity began her career as an engineer. Little did the couple realize that Wolf would be waylaid by an engineering tsunami, the recession of 2008 all but wiping out young engineers.
“The recession devastated engineering. It was heartbreaking,” she says.
By the time Sean was assigned to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, after a stop at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, Wolf had worked in several jobs but none in engineering. They would drive around Vegas and see building projects abandoned in mid-construction, heavy equipment still on site, crumbling away. The recession wiped out an entire generation of engineers.
“It was awful,” Wolf says. “There was real trauma to the individual as far as trust goes. Everyone was asking, ‘Is the economy ever going to come back? Am I ever going to get a job again?’ … People my age went into other fields. Now that the economy has come back, you can’t find people in my field in my age groups.”
S&A, for instance, has been looking for a structural engineer for two years, with no luck, she says.
Wolf worked a number of jobs in conjunction with Sean’s moves, from teaching at Sinclair Community College in Ohio to teaching at a local YMCA in Las Vegas. But unlike many of her contemporaries, she never gave up on engineering. She eventually landed a job at Taney Engineering in Vegas, and set her sights on a professional engineer license, a time-consuming ordeal that requires accruing time in an engineering firm. It was quite a challenge with two young sons at home.
“Everyone tells you, ‘Don’t have kids till you get it.’ I didn’t do it that way,” she says with a laugh.
She knew of only four others in Vegas who attempted to get their license in the headwinds of the building collapse, which was especially acute in the desert. But she’s always been dogged — and analytical, of course — in figuring things out. “You get a bunch of logical thinking people together and they’re going to do the same thing,” she says.
By 2015 Sean had been out of the Air Force for about a year and they were making decent wages.
“We thought we were supposed to work in the city, buy a house, settle down. Everything was on the table at that point,” she says.
But house-shopping in the Vegas suburbs revealed high prices and unappealing amenities. And designing millionaire homes for millionaires was a definite turnoff. A phone conversation with her grandmother, Lorraine, of Brattleboro, lit the way home.
“It was just one of those moments for me — I felt I needed to be close to her,” Wolf says.
Thus, she walked across the street from her parents’ flower shop to S&A and a new chapter began.
They couldn’t be happier being back in rural New England. They hike, she does yoga, the boys take dance lessons and they love board games. Matter of fact, they’ve worn out the game shelves at Toy City in Keene. As for raising two boys and volunteering, Wolf says it’s doable — they rarely watch television.
As for Sean, when it comes for volunteering, she grins and quips, “He’s worse,” then ticks off a litany of STEM-related activities her husband is involved in.
“This is where I want to be. This is what I want to do,” she says. “I knew it wasn’t going to be flowers.”