Karen DePauw’s legacy impacts graduate education at Virginia Tech and around the world
Her initiatives fundamentally changed graduate education at Virginia Tech and beyond.
When Karen P. DePauw announced in January 2020 her plans to retire from her role as vice president and dean for Graduate Education at Virginia Tech, she anticipated leaving the university in August 2020.
Two months after her announcement, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the university to pivot to online instruction and stringent public health safety procedures, DePauw decided to put off her retirement until summer 2021, offering continuity to the Graduate School during the pandemic.
“I was relieved,” said Monika Gibson, assistant dean and director of Graduate Student Services. “It was essential. A new dean learning the ropes during that period would have been hard.”
On Sept. 1, DePauw formally stepped down from her role as graduate dean. Aimée Surprenant began in her new role as dean of the Graduate School.
"Dean DePauw has had an incredible impact on graduate education, not just here at Virginia Tech but around the world," Surprenant said. "The Anti-Academic Bullying initiative is a shining model for other universities to follow and her Transforming Graduate Education initiative (TGE) is unique and powerful. These initiatives have had a tremendous impact on graduate education at Virginia Tech but, most importantly, have transformed individual students’ lives. I’m grateful for the solid foundation she has established and am excited about building on her TGE initiative and supporting the vision of inclusive and transformative graduate education."
Both President Tim Sands and Provost Cyril Clarke called DePauw's work extraordinary, citing her Transformative Graduate Education (TGE) initiative, the Global Perspectives Program, and her efforts to nurture an inclusive, diverse, interdisciplinary graduate community across the university’s campuses.
“She has really transformed graduate education not only at Virginia Tech, but around the country,” Sands said at the August meeting of the Board of Visitors.
The Transformative Graduate Education initiative became the blueprint for a wide range of programs aimed not only at improving graduate students’ experiences and education, but also at fostering community and creating social networks among students, faculty, and alumni.
During the past 19 years, that initiative has been studied and adapted other universities. DePauw has visited institutions across the globe to share her vision and the work done at Virginia Tech, which includes both TGE and creating the Graduate Life Center, which provided the space and place to grow the initiative and the graduate community.
When DePauw joined the university, the Graduate School was housed in Sandy Hall on the Blacksburg campus, which she said was fine for administrative work, but not conducive to providing gathering space for students. Orientation and Graduate Education Week were held outside under tents or in other spaces. But within two years of DePauw’s arrival, as the university built the Inn at Virginia Tech, space opened up at the Donaldson Brown Hotel and Conference Center. She wrote a proposal to convert the space into the GLC, including the Graduate School offices, meeting, study, and lounging spaces for students, a coffee shop, and residential space on the upper floors. The center opened in 2005 and has been “a space and a place for graduate students” ever since, Gibson said.
One of the key elements of TGE is the Preparing the Future Professoriate certificate program, which includes the Contemporary Pedagogy and Preparing the Future Professoriate (PFP) courses among its requirements. DePauw regularly taught the PFP course, with about 60 enrolled students each semester, throughout her tenure at Virginia Tech. She estimates that more than 900 students earned the certificate, and several have said it was key to their ability to gain employment after receiving their degrees.
Those who took the required courses for the certificate also were eligible to apply for the Global Perspectives Program, a unique higher-education research-focused experience that included visiting universities in Europe and South and Central America. More than 100 alumni of the program recently gathered for a reunion on the Blacksburg campus, and several of the scholars noted that the experience shaped the way they teach. Drew Lichtenberger, founder of Prepare a Future and a member of the 2006 cohort, said, “This is what education needs to be.”
In addition to the PFP program, DePauw championed transdisciplinary research and networking, and the Graduate School partnered with faculty across the university’s programs to create Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs, known as IGEPs, to expand that work. After hearing actor Alan Alda, who established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York, speak about the need to improve the way scientists and scholars share their work with the general public, she launched the Communicating Science courses with Patty Raun, professor of performance and voice in the School of Performing Arts, who now heads the Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech.
DePauw championed inclusion and diversity throughout her time at Virginia Tech.
“She was talking about diversity before the university dedicated resources to it,” Gibson said.
The school developed a range of programs to help students connect across not only fields, but backgrounds, and to find people who had similar experiences as well. To help foster stronger inclusion and diversity work in the university’s programs, the Graduate School created the Diversity Scholars program, providing support for students to develop their own inclusive projects.
Beyond improving students’ academic efforts, DePauw focused as well on work-life balance with the aim of helping students thrive, not just survive, during their graduate education journey. The Graduate School created grants to provide parental and emergency leave for graduate research and teaching assistants, and developed a suite of childcare initiatives, including the Little Hokie Hangout, a cooperative childcare center.
“She accomplished so much, there is a roundness to the narrative she created,” Gibson said. "She can leave feeling comfortable and proud to look at what she has done, to leave with the satisfaction of a job well done.”
Surprenant agreed. "The last few years have been anything but business as usual and Dr. DePauw’s leadership throughout the pandemic has been outstanding. She quickly showed herself to be an inspirational leader for troubled times. She showed empathy and compassion and developed and implemented plans to directly inform and help students navigate a constantly changing landscape."