An informal event hosted by the Student Engineers’ Council gave about 30 undergraduates in the College of Engineering a chance to chat with Dean Julie Ross.
This spring, Virginia Tech engineering students across all disciplines gathered in Torgersen Hall to take part in a conversation with Julie Ross, Virginia Tech’s Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. The Dean’s Forum, hosted by the Student Engineers’ Council (SEC), expanded on the dean’s regular Meet the Dean events and gave students an exclusive opportunity to chat with Ross in an informal setting, share ideas to improve the college experience, and ask questions.
The students in attendance, about 30 in all, represented a variety of organizations across the college, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. They came prepared on a sunny April afternoon to discuss the issues that matter most to them as undergraduates and show their commitment to the College of Engineering’s success as an institution.
“These conversations are so important to me. I normally hear everything filtered through faculty,” Ross told the group. “When I talk to students, I can hear it directly from you, and I can understand things that I can't understand without that direct conversation. I can better understand what kinds of experiences students are having.”
The forum began with a brief introduction from David Petrulis, director of relations for SEC, who graduated earlier this month with a bachelor’s degree in industrial systems and engineering. He stressed how important it is for engineering students to be seen, valued, and heard in order for the college to generate sustainable change.
“Providing a space for students and leadership to share ideas and insight toward our initiatives leads to more effective outcomes that support holding up our organizations, classrooms, and people,” Petrulis said.
After each of the students around the table introduced themselves, Ross shared some stories about her own college experience and how she became dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering. She explained to the group that engineering wasn’t even on her radar when she first enrolled as an undergraduate at Purdue University.
“I didn’t know a single engineer and really didn’t know what it was,” she said. At the time, she wasn’t sure what field she wanted to pursue, but a co-op experience at New York-based Eastman Kodak Company developed her passion for chemical engineering.
With introductions complete, students had the opportunity to ask Ross questions. With no agenda planned for the event, students drove the conversation, with topics ranging from how to navigate personal decision-making to how the college is managing enrollment to what the future holds for the College of Engineering.
Throughout the event, the dean emphasized the importance of open dialogue between students and college leadership. “This is incredibly helpful to me in understanding what we’re doing well, where we can do better, and making sure we are meeting the needs of our students,” said Ross.
Here are some of the questions that Ross answered during the Dean’s Forum, which SEC organizers hope to make an annual event.
What is an engineer to you?
Ross said she’s heard this question many times throughout her career and that she’s heard a lot of different answers. But the definition she always goes back to is something her Ph.D. advisor at Rice University once said: Engineering is what engineers do.
“When I talk to alumni, people who study engineering go out to do so many different things and kinds of work,” said Ross. “Some of it is obvious, some is not. It has everything to do with how engineers think and problem solve.”
Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering, which provides an experiential, transdisciplinary space for these innovators, currently supplies more than 50 percent of the engineers to Virginia’s workforce. Their fields range from autonomous systems and robotics to cybersecurity to occupational biomechanics.
How do you know if you’re making the right decision?
A student’s college career is full of seemingly life-altering decisions: What school do I choose? What major should I pursue? Which job offer should I accept?
“It’s not about making the right decision, but rather making the best decision for you at the time,” Ross said. There are no bad decisions – only different paths with different opportunities, she added, something Ross experienced firsthand during her academic and professional career.
“All I could do was make the best decision I could make for myself at every juncture,” said Ross. “Try to get experiences that open lots of opportunities along the way, and be open to those opportunities. Say yes to interesting things that can position you in different ways and to do different things.”
Is there any concern regarding enrollment in smaller departments?
Aerospace and ocean engineering and computer science are two of the departments rapidly growing right now, Ross said. So what does this mean for the departments that are not growing as quickly?
“These things are cyclic,” Ross told the group, explaining that disciplines tend to have their moments when they’re up and then they’re down. “If you look historically at enrollment numbers across the country, you can see these cycles happening. It’s pretty normal.”
Ross emphasized that smaller programs and larger programs do need specific types of attention. Smaller disciplines must be nurtured to remain viable, and larger disciplines must have enough faculty and resources to effectively serve the growing student population.
Ross said she works closely with departments and enrollment managers to monitor trends. “Every year, I make a decision about hiring for the next year for new faculty positions, and that has everything to do with where we’re growing and where we’re not,” she said.
What’s new around the college?
Many exciting changes are happening around the Blacksburg campus. “We are building a lot of buildings,” Ross began with a smile, followed by laughter from the students.
The 102,000-square-foot Holden Hall officially reopened this past year for the mining and minerals engineering and materials science engineering departments. On May 8, crews filled the two pits in the Center for Autonomous Mining, known as the VT Mock Mine.
Computer science is currently making the move over to campus from the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, said Ross. The department will occupy multiple buildings, including the Data and Decisions Sciences building, opening soon, and the new Gilbert Street building.
Planning is also underway for the new Mitchell Hall, which will replace Randolph Hall and become the largest academic building on the Blacksburg campus. “That’s really an exciting project, and we will start moving out of Randolph this summer,” said Ross.
Exciting things are also happening beyond the Blacksburg campus. Ross was recently named a special advisor to President Tim Sands, and she will lead a steering committee charged to review and guide Virginia Tech’s presence in Northern Virginia. The new Innovation Campus is set to open in Alexandria in the fall of 2024, and Ross will help guide sustainable development in Falls Church and Arlington. The college also continues to grow its Master of Engineering in Computer Science and Computer Engineering programs in response to the commonwealth’s Tech Talent Investment Program.
“There’s so much going on, all really good things,” said Ross. “It’s a great time to be in the college because things are going really well. There’s a lot of momentum, we have great support from the university, and things are booming here in Blacksburg and in Northern Virginia. It’s a fun time to be here at Virginia Tech.”
Photos by Peter Means, video by Spencer Roberts
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