Sian describes projects at the Oxnard WRRF to her mentor Nirmala Mahadevan.

CWEA Mentoring Program Helps Build Skills, Connections within the Profession

“You don't know what is out there so why not try something new.” - Sian Bashkiroff, City of Oxnard
By Alec Mackie, CWEA, Career Stories, Members in the News

Standing in the lobby of the City of Oxnard’s water resource recovery facility on a sunny Friday morning, mentor Nirmala Mahadevan and mentee Sian Bashkiroff are laughing and joking as they catch-up on stories about work, family, and industry events. Whenever they get together, the conversation just flows. “We’re both talkers,” said Sian.

CWEA’s inaugural mentoring program began in April and is designed to be flexible, supporting mentees and mentors as they work together to build a valuable relationship. Even if it’s just catching up on a regular basis.

The program pairs mentors and mentees for one year and is an opportunity for people new to wastewater to ask questions, share successes and challenges, and take the lead in learning how to enhance their career. Mentors share what they know and provide advice.

Sian joined Oxnard’s team in November as an associate engineer and enjoys learning from Nirmala about the wider California water world. Sian’s manager recently retired, a common occurrence these days, creating a fluid on-call engineering role as the treatment plant undergoes several upgrades. “That’s what I I love, seeing what we’re building become reality.”

Sian started to work full-time two years ago after raising three children, going back to school, and graduating from Cal State Northridge with an engineering degree in 2020.

Nirmala is a senior engineer in the Water Use Efficiency branch of the Department of Water Resources, and volunteers as a mentor for several programs, such as CWEA’s; the Association of Women in Water, Energy and Environment; and the National Society of Black Engineers.

CWEA chatted with Sian and Nirmala about the first four months as mentee-mentor next to the beautiful sandy beaches of Oxnard and Port Hueneme.

Should members be nervous about joining a mentoring program? 

Nirmala: I have been a mentor many times, so I wasn’t nervous at all. I usually try to do more than the minimum and connect them with other professionals who can advise them.

If you are committed, you will learn to get better at it. Read a book about mentoring. Ask the mentor organization for more opportunities to get mentors together to compare stories and learn.

Sian: I am not afraid to meet new people. You don’t know what is out there so why not try something new. The commitment is only for a year, and what’s a year? You don’t have anything to lose. Find out what you like and don’t like because it’s so important, that makes life better.

I’m new to the profession, though not a “young professional”, so I was a little nervous about how the other person would react.  That was my only concern, how are they going to feel if they’re a mentor to someone older?  My goal was to meet people in the industry and Nirmala is a great mentor.

What do you recommend to a mentor/mentee to get them ready for the program?

Nirmala: Mentees can write down some draft goals early on and communicate what you need often. Even if only by email.

Mentors should make yourself available and keep the lines of communication open, as much as your lifestyle allows.

Sian: Be open minded, be willing to learn, meet more people, and acquire more knowledge. It’s hard to meet a lot of new people in this industry while we’re at the plant.

Why is mentoring important for the water profession?

Nirmala: There are so many nuances to navigating the water industry. In the end, it’s a small world of professionals and it’s helpful to build strong connections across agencies and regions. A mentor can advise on any pitfalls to avoid.

Sian: Mentoring is important since a lot of young professionals have never worked during college, so after getting an engineering degree, the people around you think you know everything.  Then you get in here and find out you don’t know anything. Having someone there to answer your questions is so important.

Any advice for students looking to join the water profession?

Sian: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Sometimes you find it’s not the right question, but one question leads you to the next one and then getting on the right track.

To meet people and learn about careers, I joined multiple professional associations during college because they’re free for students. Hey it’s free, so why not?  I learned so much about what I liked and didn’t like. Find out who you are and go into that line of work.

There are 17 matched pairs in the inaugural group. The next round of the CWEA Mentoring Program will open for applications on February 1, 2024. Learn more at

Photos by CWEA.