They chose to study engineering at Virginia Tech for various reasons. Brian Keller wanted to be near family in West Virginia and had been hooked on engineering since childhood. John Sherwood had his eye on a career in computer science. Caitlin Proctor said she always thought like an engineer and Blacksburg was the “no-brainer choice.”
Different paths led these students to campus. But all three joined the Student Engineers’ Council at Virginia Tech (SEC) for a similar reason: to be part of a larger group and make a difference.
During its 40-year existence, the self-funded, nonprofit council has given more than $1 million to student team projects, scholarships, and philanthropic organizations at Virginia Tech. The council’s mission is to “enhance the engineering education and provide service to engineering student societies and the College of Engineering,” according to its website.
The council is now celebrating a milestone: capping a $500,000 endowment to support student design team projects, providing funds for everything from a human-powered submarine to a Formula SAE race car to a group dedicated to building a Scramjet engine. Many of these projects are housed at the Joseph F. Ware Jr. Advanced Engineering Laboratory, a major recipient of the council’s fundraising efforts.
Started in 2007, the $500,000 design endowment was funded in part by donations from companies such as Boeing, as well as the council’s annual job expo on campus
“Every year, we listen to the projects we support present on their progress as they apply for funding, and it’s a joy,” said Proctor, a junior and University Honors student from Stafford, Va., who is majoring in civil engineering. She is chairwoman of the council’s awards and scholarship committee. “Some of my personal favorites are the outreach and charity groups we support.”
Without the council, CHARLI -- the walking humanoid made by students at the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) – might never have taken a step. The council in 2008 gave RoMeLa $20,000 in seed money. It also provided initial funding for the Blind Driver Challenge, another RoMeLa project that has captured national headlines.
“The SEC’s initial seed funding impact and return on investment for Virginia Tech has been incredible,” said Dennis Hong, associate professor of mechanical engineering and RoMeLa director. “And in the end, it is engineering students who benefit from all of this.”
On the career front, the council’s Engineering Expo brings more than 220 companies -- even during a bad economy -- to campus to meet with students seeking internships or post-graduation jobs. The yearly event attracts more than 3,000 students, according to the council.
“Both companies I have worked for while at school were companies that I first made contact with through Expo,” said Sherwood, a senior from Burke, Va., majoring in computer science, who is director of finance for the council. “The first [company] I worked for is the company I will be working with full-time following graduation.”
Keller, the council's chairman for the 2010-11 year, concurs. “I definitely landed internship offers through Engineering Expo, and I expect it will be the source of many of my job offers as I enter the workforce after graduate school,” said the mechanical engineering major and junior from Charleston, W.Va.
Faculty and staff well know the council’s achievements. “The SEC serves as an extraordinary model to the nation for teaching young men and women how to become philanthropists at a very early age,” said Lynn Nystrom, director of news and external relations for the College of Engineering and advisor to the council.
“The Engineering Expo has been an asset to the college,” said Paul Torgersen, former president of Virginia Tech and dean of the College of Engineering from 1970 until 1990. It was under his watch the council begun, and its first effort in philanthropy in 1985 was in his honor, the $25,000 Torgersen Leadership Scholarship endowed in honor of the college's 100th anniversary of its first graduate, Nystrom said.
The council is not resting on its laurels. It already has started on a $1 million endowment with an end goal date of 2020, Keller said. The council also is planning to donate $100,000 during a three-year period to the planned Signature Engineering Building, a $100 million construction project the College of Engineering plans to break ground on by summer 2011. The funds will pay for classroom labs.
“The SEC is growing every year,” Proctor said. “More engineering organizations are finding out about it, and many people are joining on their own just because they support our work. I hope that this growth continues.”