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Social Innovation Fellows

Interview with Social Innovation Fellows Mentor Jahmal Pullen

Headshot of Jahmal Pullen

Jahmal Pullen volunteers as one of six team mentors in the Social Innovation Fellows (SIF) program. Team mentors play a guiding role for our student teams, offering them valuable expertise and experience to compliment their own fresh perspectives.

Jahmal Pullen is the Engineering Coordination and Safety Branch Manager in the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Rail Division. Mr. Pullen is a registered professional engineer in the State of North Carolina with over 25 years of experience in engineering and business in the public and private sector. He serves as manager of Surfaces and Encroachments, Corridor Studies, Crossing Consolidation, Safety Oversight and Inventory/Data Analysis units.

Mr. Pullen earned a B.S. degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Illinois –Urbana-Champaign and an MBA degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In his spare time Jahmal enjoys golfing, traveling and working on his antique car.

What made you choose to be a team mentor?

For one thing, I have found it enjoyable interacting with students, whether that was grade school, high school, or college age. It’s always interesting to get new perspectives. I really enjoy seeing people develop and being able to offer thoughts and suggestions to help along the way.

I was involved with Big Brother, Big Sister and other mentor programs through the years so hearing about this opportunity just sounded like something I wanted to be a part of…it’s a great group of folks. The energy, the attitudes are just really nice to be around and experience.

What do you enjoy most about being a mentor? What do you get out of it?

Seeing how people develop. You see something that might be a gap and then someone suggests “I can grab that. I can run with that.” Just to watch that development and to watch that interaction. It’s nice to watch and to see if I can help with suggestions or thoughts. It’s just a positive experience.

It’s also refreshing to see the younger group in the country and just how dedicated and smart and focused they are.

Tell me a little about yourself.

I’m originally from Illinois, but moved to NC to attend grad school at UNC-Chapel Hill. I then moved away again after those two years and for a large part of my life I felt like I should always write my address in pencil because I was moving all over the place! But I really loved it in NC and eventually found my way back. I’ve now been here since 2005.

My work started in engineering but throughout my life, I have been in business, I started a golf magazine (which went under) but it was a fun experience. I tried finance and accounting for a couple of years…now I am back in engineering and have been working as a civil engineer for the last 15 years or so.

With all those different experiences, tell me about one of your favorite “projects” that you’ve worked on.

There were a couple of different things.

I really liked a car my grandfather had, a 1965 Chevy Malibu, that he drove back and forth to work every day. When I was 16 he let me have it. My dad and I worked on it, put a new engine in it, and throughout my years in high school that was what I drove. It was a good experience that tied me to my grandfather and my dad. I actually still have that car today and it still runs.

1965 Chevy Malibu.

I cannot believe that still runs, that’s incredible.

Even though I kept my address in pencil from moving around so much, that car has traveled with me to all those places I lived.

The other project was when I did engineering work for State Farm Insurance. It was a new building and they had a problem with water in the crawl space of the building.

It ended up being really, REALLY nasty. We had to wear Tyvek suits, set up fans- everything. But we worked through a design to alleviate all the issues, take out all this mold, drain the area, etc. It took several years, a lot of time, but it was really rewarding to improve that situation that could have been a really bad situation for the people working there.

It was just different and not an everyday project so it was really satisfying to see the end result.

Something that I am really curious about. With all of your experience and the challenges in the world right now, how do you handle tough decisions? Do you have a method or a guiding compass?

I think it’s internal. I think about something internally and I do it for a while. I toss things around in my head and try to figure out what’s a good way to tackle a problem, get feedback from others.

I also value weighing the pros and the cons, but then feeling confident in your decision, making your decision, and then moving on. I think that’s a huge part of anything. If you’re comfortable with the decision you’ve made, with your evaluation of the criteria, then you move on. Indecision is a decision in itself. It’s best to evaluate and move on and if you need to redirect down the road you can do that, but with the information you have on hand at the time you make a decision and go with it.

A coach in high school I had always used to say “make your mistakes at full speed.”

Right! And being behind it! I’m not saying you’re faking it, but if you’re confident in the decision you made and why you made it, that helps a lot in being successful with it. People can tell when you’re really unsure and if you’re not believing in yourself. I have no problem with saying I’ve made a mistake, but it’s important to make the decision and keep moving.

Other than that self-confidence, what is one of the biggest lessons you have learned in your career?

Having the ability to listen. Not to think that you or I have all the answers. Working as a team, giving input, being a part of the team and not just thinking about what you’re saying next so you can really listen and understand what others are saying. Taking that to heart.

Listening often requires humility.

I’ve been on the other side of that, when you deal with people that run over everybody else.

In general something I really can’t stand are bullies, people ought to be comfortable in their situation and able to express their thoughts. I have never had much tolerance for people that run over others. You need to listen to others and bring in other ideas.

With the world being what it is, what do you think students most need to hear right now?

I think, ultimately, people want to do the right thing.

On the social issues side, we had serious unrest in the ‘60s and we improved and made it through it. So that’s what I would say. But I am certainly struggling with that myself. I struggle with that day to day, especially over the past 6 months.

Another thing to consider is that you might think this is the worst time in history, but there have been some pretty bad situations in the past and we’ve gotten through it and gotten better from them.

Things change, no matter what.

No doubt. I think there are fringes, but the bulk of people, most people, are good people and they want to get along with others and they don’t want to see people hurt or suffer. Sometimes if it’s not something that you have experienced you might not realize the path that other people have taken or had to go through; if you don’t see it it’s almost like it’s not there.

It doesn’t mean you’re trying to ignore anything, but if you don’t see it it’s not your reality. But I feel like a lot of people have opened their eyes to the experiences of others over these last few months. So I think that’s a positive that has come out of this.