skip to main content
Joe T. May.

Gift creates a pathway for first generation engineering students

Thanks to the May Family Foundation, more doors have been opened for Virginia high school students to attend Virginia Tech.

When electrical engineering alumnus Joe T. May '62 was in high school, he says he wasn’t exactly on a path to success.

After a suspension for smoking cigarettes — something that today, May said, “wouldn’t raise an eyebrow,” but did then in the small Mennonite community he lived in — May’s principal allowed him to graduate only if he promised “to do something useful” with his life.

“A couple of people in small ways were very helpful in getting me on track and allowed me to end up getting an engineering degree from Virginia Tech and, frankly, ending up with a career that’s been very satisfying to me, and I think helpful in general,” May said.

It’s one of the reasons May and his family — including his wife, Bobby, and two daughters, Virginia Tech alumna Elaine and University of Virginia alumna Beth — have gifted the College of Engineering $5 million from the May Family Foundation to establish a multiyear program that aims to increase the number of first-generation students in Virginia who enroll at and graduate from Virginia Tech in engineering.

Joe May and his family pose for a group photo in front a grand white porch with green bushes.
The May family.

Since the gift was announced in May 2018, the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) has begun laying the framework of the program, which will rely heavily on partnerships with high schools across Virginia and Virginia Tech's College Access Collaborative, a university effort to increase academic preparation, access, and affordability of college for underrepresented groups.

Ashley Taylor Repisky, an alumna, current doctoral student in engineering education, and graduate assistant for the center who’s leading development of the program, said the first cohort of 10th, 11th, and 12th graders will be invited to apply starting January 2019 and admitted in spring. A total of 180 high school students in the first group — 60 from each grade level — will be invited to campus in summer 2019 for engineering-related programming, including a two-week long camp, followed by one visit each semester and summer until they graduate high school.

Support continues throughout college. If students are accepted to and enroll in engineering at Virginia Tech, that support takes the form of living-learning communities and scholarships that fund study abroad and extracurriculars.

“A couple of people in small ways were very helpful in getting me on track and allowed me to end up getting an engineering degree from Virginia Tech." -Joe T. May

Over the duration of a five-year pilot, this program should provide 300 students with the gateway to successfully pursue engineering degrees.

Starting as early as 10th grade provides extended exposure to engineering and fosters a long-term relationship for the accepted first-generation students, something Repisky says is unique compared to most pre-college programs. What’s more, the program’s focus on including the families in the process — inviting them to workshops and engaging them during each visit to campus — is crucial, but not typical throughout the country.

“Navigating the college process in general, from start to finish, takes a community of support, not only from the institution — from Virginia Tech — but it also takes a community of support from the student’s home community,” Repisky said. “I think this program is really trying to partner both of those two things together to really support students throughout this whole process.”

Joe May poses for a photo in the grand hallway at the Inn at Virginia Tech.
Joe T. May and his grandson, Will Banner.

In the weeks to come, Repisky, CEED, and College Access Collaborative will begin carrying out the May family’s vision by reaching out to every high school in the state of Virginia. All high schoolers will be invited to apply, with targeted efforts in high-need areas as defined by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

It’s another step forward in a collective vision for the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, said Dean Julia Ross.

“We know we must continue to make attending Virginia Tech engineering more accessible,” Ross said. “To address society’s greatest challenges, we need to attract the best students from all backgrounds and areas of the commonwealth. We could not be more thankful and excited about the possibilities that the gift allows the college and our incoming students.”

If you want to have an impact on our students and faculty like those featured in this magazine, go here to support the College of Engineering. For more information, call (540) 231-3628.