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Pathfinders: How alumni are sharing their stories to help Golden Bears explore their own careers

WVU Tech student Mary Morrison is just one of many students who have benefited from meeting with alumni.When alumni share their stories, students like Mary Morrison can develop a clearer view of the many paths ahead.

For many college graduates, fulfilling careers begin to take shape when they realize that landing the perfect job isn’t always about the title. Sometimes it’s simply about doing what they find interesting or what they’re good at. Sometimes it’s about using their skills in ways they never considered before. That realization can liberating, but for many, it’s doesn’t happen until well after graduation day.

WVU Tech chemical engineering professor Dr. Kimberlyn Gray aims to change that.

Gray works on outreach projects that connect K-12 and college students with STEM professionals. Her Camp STEM program , for instance, puts young students in touch with actual scientists and engineers.

Throughout the years, she’s found a common thread in these sessions: when students connect with professionals, they begin to realize the broader power of their own skills and their interests. They begin to realize that being an engineer doesn’t mean sitting at a drafting table for the next 30 years, or that not all biologists wear lab coats. They start to connect their skills and interests with new possibilities.

Back to school

Alumna Stacia Wentz speaks to the Engineering Seminar classTech graduate Stacia Wentz shares her career story with the Engineering Seminar class.

In that common thread, Gray saw an opportunity to help her Tech students see the pathways that might lie in their own careers. Last semester, she established the first Engineering Seminar course at Tech. The class brings back WVU Tech alumni from various disciplines to share their stories and answer questions. 

“We created this series for students who think they know the type of STEM field they want to go into but don't really know what engineers or scientists do. It’s a chance to find out what these careers are really like, and they're finding it out from people who have done a lot of different things," she said.

Over the eight-week course, students met with speakers from various engineering disciplines and professionals in the fields of information systems, biology and chemistry.

"We brought in alumni who are just a few years into their careers and some who have been working for decades. They tell our students about their career paths and the things they've been doing,” she said.

Stacia Wentz, ’10, was one of those featured speaker.

The Buckhannon, West Virginia native earned her degree at Tech in electrical and electronics engineering technology. Now she’s a project engineer for Eagle Research Corporation, a company that designs and manufactures electronic equipment for the natural gas industry.

“I determine what products are needed and program them to fit a customer’s custom application need. I also provide technical support on any project I was involved in as well as customer calls,” she said.

Wentz shared that it wasn’t until she was wrapping up her degree that she realized that she had so many paths available to her.

“I interviewed with a company that does lighting design. I interviewed for a position that was basically a sales position, as well as with Eagle, where we make electronics equipment. I was equally qualified for these positions with my degree, but they were all vastly different,” she said.

For students like Mary Morrison, a sophomore chemical engineering major from Huntington, West Virginia, hearing these stories from Wentz and others was revealing.

“It was an eye-opening experience. I did not realize that electrical engineers do more than just electrical work. I learned that engineers can be project managers or salesman,” she said.

Morrison says she wants to leverage her chemical engineering degree into a career in the medical profession. It may sound like an odd path, but for her interests, it’s a perfect fit. 

“This class really helped show me exactly what is possible with an engineering degree. I would definitely recommend it to all students – even seniors – because it really opens your mind to career opportunities,” she said.

Gray said that Morrison’s experience was common among students in the class.

“The theme our students noticed is that professionals work in a wide, wide range of fields; that there are more paths for each degree than they might think. Students are realizing that what they want now might not be what they want in five or ten years, and that's OK. That's powerful,” she said. 

The alumni connection

The Engineering Seminar course also became a valuable lesson in networking.

"Students noticed that many of these speakers landed jobs and opportunities because they made connections and they've kept those up,” said Gray. 

She said that students have been in touch with many of the speakers from the course and that the experience has been a great way for alumni to give back.

"Personally, there have been people who have helped me along the way. That's not the kind of thing you can pay back directly, so I've always been told to pay that forward. This in one way for alumni to do that and to have a real impact," she said.

Wentz agreed.

“I absolutely would recommend other alumni and professionals participate. We have personal experience with what students are going through or will be going through. These students will likely become our coworkers, customers or vendors in the near future. They need all the encouragement they can get,” she said.

Gray is offering the Engineering Seminar again in the late spring term and is currently recruiting speakers.

Want to participate? The requirements are simple.

"Our ideal speaker is someone who is passionate about what they do and who wants to share about bit about who they are and how they got where there are today,” she said.

Gray said that she’s looking for speakers from various disciplines, and can set up video conferencing for out-of-state and international graduates who want to participate. Those who wish to share their stories can contact Gray at Kimberlyn.Gray@mail.wvu.edu