In spring, when 17-year-old John R. Lewis High School student Kadija Ismail, of Springfield, Virginia, learned she’d been accepted into the Virginia Tech Pathways for Future Engineers program and would be attending its virtual summer camp, she wasn’t sure she fit the bill as a future engineer.

“Before joining the program, I was actually not that interested in engineering,” Ismail said. “I’m an SGA [student government] kid. My high school experience hasn’t been centered around it.”

Then, during the Pathways summer camp, Ismail worked in a small group of fellow prospective first-generation students from throughout Virginia on a design challenge co-hosted by Pathways and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), the program’s industry partner in 2020.

Ismail and her teammates were tasked with one of three design challenges faced by VDOT, revolving around the agency’s 40+ rest areas that dot the state’s major highways. The challenges: increasing environmental sustainability in rest areas, mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in these areas, and optimizing their use as small, high-traffic spaces. Ismail’s team took on the third.  

The team did research on design solutions, weighed pros and cons and return on investment, and presented their ideas to a panel of VDOT professionals. Somewhere in that brainstorming, Ismail started to see herself majoring in engineering or pairing it in a double major, she said. 

“There was a time, I can’t pinpoint when, when I saw that engineering can be interdisciplinary,” Ismail said. “I think it was mostly in this design challenge, where we were talking about all of these different things we wanted to incorporate with the rest stop. ‘This is touching on the medical field, and this is touching on business.’ I was interested in the multifaceted areas.”

Giving students a chance to think about what it means to be an engineer, as Ismail did, is a primary goal for Pathways for Future Engineers, said program director Perry Martin. The multiyear program, based in the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity in the College of Engineering, aims to encourage first-generation students’ interest in engineering and equip them with key information about building the academic foundation for a career in it.

“We try to give them a very realistic sense of the life of an engineer and the spectrum of engineers,” Martin said of the program. “Beyond that, the intent of Pathways is to look at college prep needed for applying, as well as financing, study habits, essay writing — things that are necessary for someone to be accepted into college and be successful in college.”

Pathways works with Virginia Tech engineering faculty and industry partners to expose students to the broad, constantly evolving range of engineering applications and jobs they can pursue. During the Pathways summer camp, Virginia Tech engineering faculty instructed students in learning sessions on subjects spanning cybersecurity, disease transmission, and energy systems. A virtual panel of first-generation VDOT engineers shared their educational and career experiences and tips with students, discussing scholarship opportunities and where to seek them out, the importance of applying to internships, and next steps after receiving a bachelor’s degree, including graduate studies and professional licensure. Students also attended virtual sessions on college applications and admissions processes and financial aid.

“I think any experience where students can interact with professionals is invaluable,” said Angela Parsley, VDOT’s STEM coordinator. “It gives them the opportunity to talk to people they otherwise may never have an opportunity to connect with and really learn how to start interacting with adults in a professional manner.

"It is one thing to be told how college or work might be by a teacher or parent; it is another to experience it and start to see for yourself what skills are needed. The Pathways camp and design challenge are exactly the type of experiences that students need to inspire and empower them to take control of their futures.”

Candice Gibson '05, a first-generation engineering graduate of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, as well as an alumna of the Hypatia living-learning community, volunteered with Pathways this summer as a virtual panelist and design challenge judge. Watching students take part in the summer camp, Gibson was reminded of the interest and questions she had when attending Women’s Preview Weekend at Virginia Tech in high school.

At 17, as Gibson thought about translating her math skills and her fascination with bridge and tunnel construction into a college major, she found it helpful to talk to faculty and students and learn more about the work they did.

“I could see myself in their shoes, and being able to see some pretty cool achievements up close further validated that belief,” Gibson said. “As Pathways students listened to the conversations that we the panelists shared this summer, about what interests we had that led us to become engineers and what we like about the work we do, I can only hope they received helpful guidance in their decision-making process.”

Pathways for Future Engineers is supported by a $5 million gift made in 2018 by the May Family Foundation, with the goal of enabling more first-generation college students from Virginia to pursue engineering degrees. The program works from 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. 

Pathways is buoyed mainly by in-person events that enable students to come to campus and feel out the college experience, so the transition to virtual programming is still a learning process, Martin said.

Before the 2020 summer camp started, the Pathways staff discussed students' work schedules with them and polled them on their internet capabilities at home, in an effort to help students figure out how or if they wanted to adjust their time at camp based on their individual situations. It's been important to do in moving to virtual programs, Martin said. "Just because we assume that one solution may work for one student, doesn’t mean it’ll work for another," he said.

As virtual events continue, the program will try to find ways to reproduce more of the social connections that come with students being together on campus. Though Ismail had heard about the Pathways program’s in-person experience and was disappointed not to have experienced it the same way, she and her peers were still able to connect. Her team formed a group chat during the design challenge and still check in on one another sometimes.

“We’ll occasionally hit each other up and be like, ‘Hey, how are you guys doing with school, going good? Yeah, it’s been kinda rough,’” Ismail said. “It’s really nice, being able to know there are students who are going through what you’re going through and are going through the same process together. Anytime anybody has a question, they’ll just hit up the group chat. That community we kind of made for ourselves — we have each other and can support each other.”

A feeling of community is invaluable as Pathways students graduate and go to college, Martin said. Those who are accepted to Virginia Tech and enroll in engineering, for instance, have a slot held for them in the college's living-learning communities. One of the Pathways program's forward-looking goals is to build more of this support. 

"This is a program that reaches students, families, external partners," Martin said. "How do we build a community around Pathways, where those who are alumni stay engaged, and those who have similar experiences as first-generation engineers are drawn into the program in greater supporting roles? That’s a growth area for the program."

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