Her family moved from Berkeley Springs, W.Va., to Hagerstown the summer before she started high school. Her father worked for Mack Trucks.
After getting a bachelor's degree in political science from Hood College in 1977, she worked at the Western Maryland Consortium, an employment assistance and training agency, for about six years.
Swaim-Staley said she went to school at night to get a master's degree in contemporary government, also from Hood.
Interested in state issues, she took a job as a budget and policy analyst for the Maryland General Assembly in 1983.
Swaim-Staley said she handled mostly natural resources and environment matters to start. After about five years, given a choice, she switched to transportation issues.
"So that was sort of where the love of transportation began," she said.
Swaim-Staley became the state Department of Transportation's chief financial officer in 1993.
She left the department after four years to be assistant director of financial management for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs the Metro system.
She came back to the Department of Transportation in 1999 as deputy secretary under John Porcari.
In 2003, she briefly was a special assistant to Baltimore County's executive.
From 2003 to 2007, she directed Montgomery County's Office of Management and Budget.
Swaim-Staley came back to the Department of Transportation in 2007, again as a deputy secretary under Porcari.
Porcari left this year to be the deputy transportation secretary in the Obama administration. Swaim-Staley became the state's acting secretary in June.
Now, the title of secretary is permanent, pending confirmation by the state Senate.
"It's a privilege, and ... I've been getting used to the idea, frankly," she said.
State Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, described Swaim-Staley as the most qualified person to have held the position of transportation secretary.
Art Callaham, executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee, called her "the right person for the job."
Callaham, Swaim-Staley and Brien J. Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, were members of Leadership Maryland's class of 2000.
Having that connection and someone in office who knows Washington County are great benefits, Callaham said.
Swaim-Staley, 52, lives in Davidsonville, near Annapolis, with her husband, Scott Staley.
Scott Staley moved from Ohio to Hagerstown with his family during his high school years.
Swaim-Staley said she looks forward to visiting Washington County on Oct. 1 for the annual meeting between state transportation officials and county leaders.