A final and affirming “A”

Four years ago, 45 freshmen gambled on a brand new engineering program at JMU. In a state with some of the best colleges and universities in the country, including some top engineering schools, their choice was not without risk. What if the program didn’t succeed the way the planners hoped? What if they got to commencement with degrees in hand and major regrets? What if the graduates couldn’t find jobs?

No one could guarantee their success or that of the new school. For these 37 men and eight women, it took courage as Keith Holland (’00), assistant professor of engineering, told the graduates on Saturday. Still, these pioneers staked their college educations on JMU’s bold, untraditional and untried engineering program that focused on sustainable systems.

Any new program has growing pains. But as I talked to members of the first engineering class this year, they repeatedly expressed one overarching sentiment. I heard it again this weekend as Interim Director Bob Kolvoord reviewed the years leading up to Saturday’s inaugural graduation.

For the past four years, students, faculty and administrators have worked together, each learning from the other in an extraordinary partnership. It has never been about a faculty so sure of their way that the input and opinions of the students didn’t carry weight. In fact, it was the opposite. It has been a collaboration like none other. Again and again, I heard from students that the faculty listened — really listened. But even more importantly, they heard students. In doing so, the faculty made these 45 students not only partakers of the new program but participants in creating JMU engineering.

The experience for these students, though, is far more than programmatic; the collegiality they found at JMU ran deep through the students’ educations. As Kolvoord addressed the graduates decked out in purple caps and gowns with orange stoles and tassels, it was clear that this class has a special camaraderie. The 13 faculty members, six staff members and 45 students each filled critical roles in JMU engineering — all bent on creating a successful program and successful students. As more than a few students said, “every one of the faculty knows our names.”

When I first heard about JMU engineering, I remembered the naysayers who said the new College of Integrated Science and Technology wouldn’t fly. Who would hire these graduates?  Back then there was plenty of skepticism. Two decades later, however, those questions have been answered with success. ISAT has proved its mettle.

Now the JMU School of Engineering is following the same pioneering path — and the first statistics are impressive. Of the 45 graduates who earned their degrees on Saturday, 24  have accepted full-time engineering jobs. Another 12 have been accepted into graduate schools, both master’s and Ph.D. programs, at universities including Cornell, Villanova, George Mason, South Florida, Arizona State, Delaware, Penn State, Carnegie-Mellon, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Another seven have received job offers or graduate school spots but are still deciding where they’ll go. That’s 43 out of 45 graduates.

On a grading scale, that’s a 95.5 — a final and affirming “A” for the Class of 2012, the students who gambled on JMU engineering and won.

Last Friday night, when the first class gathered one last time before commencement, the students presented the faculty with a plaque bearing all their names — the first class of graduates of James Madison University’s School of Engineering. It was a fitting gift because they are not only pioneers, these students and their professors are also founders.

To learn much more about JMU’s School of Engineering, visit the engineering site with an archive of stories about the 2012 graduates of JMU engineering. You’ll find it at http://www.jmu.edu/engineering/index.html

The Class of 2012, part 5

Kent Graham and Scott Dyer

Every day this week, we’re showcasing seniors we’ve met through the Be the Change blog.  As a group they represent the more than 4,000 students who will receive their degrees on Saturday. We asked them about their Madison Experience, how it has changed them and the best and worst parts of graduating from JMU.

“I feel like I have always received the support …”

Scott Dyer of Baltimore, Md., has a huge heart. During his four years at JMU, he’s worked with local Hispanic students as a leader for Young Life, providing friendship and mentoring. It’s not a passing fancy for the brand new Phi Beta Kappa inductee and Spanish major who also will earn minors in secondary education and teaching English as a second language. “My plans after graduation are to send out applications to teach English to adults and to run an after school program in Harrisonburg,” he writes. “Then I plan on applying for graduate school in order to get my master’s in teaching for Spanish and ESL. I also hope to be involved in community development in a big city within a Latino population.”

Scott, who has also worked at a local restaurant throughout college, writes: “JMU has helped me grow into a person who is comfortable starting a conversation with any type of person. This university has always encouraged learning through relationships: faculty to student, and student to student. I have developed a lot of confidence in the person I was made to be, and I feel like I have always received the support of faculty and staff and peers.”

“The best part of graduating is having the opportunity to enter with confidence into my next stage of life. The worst part is no longer being able to be consistently around the same community of people who have loved me so well over the last four years.”

And finally, one student who hasn’t been mentioned by name…

…. but who has been quoted and consulted. Kent Graham, my youngest son and third Duke, will graduate Saturday as part of the first engineering class. More than four years ago, as he was deciding which college to attend, Kent wrestled with his choices. Accepted into all the schools he applied to, he was captivated by the freedom and the excitement of learning at JMU. Here he could find out what he really wanted to do, rather than be forced into one discipline only to discover it was not what he wanted. In the end JMU won, and so did Kent. Recently, I asked him if his was a good decision so many years ago. “Oh, yes,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in engineering, he’ll head to industry as an assistant project manager for a large mechanical contractor to begin his pursuit of a professional engineering license.

For Kent, like Scott, much of the Madison Experience has focused around work and friendships developed through Young Life. He’s spent four years driving back and forth to a local high school, mentoring students. And then, there’s the Toolbox, where he, Scott Dyer and more than a dozen other students have shared their JMU years. The Toolbox is one of the many named houses in Harrisonburg where students live. It is  a dilapidated old house with little heat, a sofa-laden front porch, an eclectic hodgepodge of furniture exceeded only by the variety of wall colors — and a home where lifelong friendships are forged.

I have long told my children that the best friends they’ll ever have, they’ll likely find in college. As you’ve read the thoughts of students this week, that sentiment is affirmed. It is in the relationships that we live and those relationships merged for greater purposes that will change the world.

The college experience should never be exclusively about academic pursuits, prestige or bragging rights. It should be about becoming the best one can become, of finding that place in the world  to make a difference, and of discovering a life pursuit that will challenge, interest and inspire for decades to come. Few universities, including my alma mater, accomplish that better than JMU. It is the right size, the right disposition, the right balance. These 10 students prove that, and as they move out into the “real” world, they’ll carry with them the best of JMU.

Congratulations and many thanks to Abby Burkhardt, Josh Smead, Ben Schulze, Scott Dovel, Matt Burton, Peter Epley, Dave Stevens, Jessie Taylor, Scott Dyer, Kent Graham and to the entire James Madison University Class of 2012.

We can’t wait to hear about all the thousands of ways you will change the world.


The class of 2012, part 3

Every day this week, we’re showcasing seniors we’ve met through the Be the Change blog.  As a group they represent the more than 4,000 students who will receive their degrees on Saturday. We asked them about their Madison Experience, how it has changed them and the best and worst parts of graduating from JMU.

Peter Epley and Matt Burton

“When I came here I was slightly insecure…..” 

Matt Burton of Chesapeake, Va., is a physics major with a math minor and one of the three co-creators of the Lisanby iPad application. He writes: “In my time at JMU I have grown in maturity tremendously. When I came here I was slightly insecure and over the years I have transitioned into leading research projects for the physics department, making the art iPad app, and becoming a leader in my Christian organization on campus.”

As vice president of ministry for the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM), formerly Christian student union (CSU), Matt oversees all small groups and leads the men’s group, social events and intramurals for the organization.

 After graduation, Matt will enter a Ph.D. program in nuclear physics at the College of William and Mary. “The best part of graduating,” he writes, “is beginning my life out in the real world and starting to make my mark in my field, while the worst part is leaving all that has become a home to me and leaving my friends here who have become like a family to me.”

The robotics team (l to r) Joey Lang, McHarg, Peter Epley, Jed Caldwell

“More or less, sleep is what I don’t get …”

Peter Epley, an engineering major from Springfield, Va.,  helped develop the Lisanby iPad app with Matt Burton and Josh Smead.

Peter has also been one of my go-to guys this year as JMU communications has covered JMU’s first graduating class of student engineers. All year, I’ve relied on Peter and many of his fellow engineers to answer questions, pose for photos and answer engineering questions. For two years, Peter and his team have worked to develop and build a firefighting robot. Given that he’s an engineering student and he worked on the iPad app, I was amazed to learn that Peter has also been a member of the Marching Royal Dukes. How does he fit all this into 24 hours?

“I was a member of the MRDs and the JMU Pep Band for all four years here at JMU,” Peter writes. “I am an alto saxophone player and served as a drill instructor my junior and senior years. More or less, sleep is what I don’t get, but honestly, it’s what I do for fun to get away from classes and homework.”

Not surprisingly, the best part of graduating, says Peter, is “I feel like I can finally sleep more than eight hours and not regret it. I can finally take everything that I have learned and use it to make a lasting difference.” The worst part is “leaving a family of some of the most caring and innovative students, friends and faculty I have ever had,” he writes.

“JMU has helped me really see how I can make a difference and what I am capable of doing, even if it is simply on a small scale. Working through the  engineering program has been challenging, especially since we are the first class, but I think it is exciting that my class will serve a crucial role in defining what JMU engineers can do. Beyond engineering, JMU has allowed me to explore different opportunities (such as the iPad app) that I never could have thought up and executed alone. Music has also been an important aspect in my life and JMU was one of the few schools that really gave me the opportunity to still pursue a technical major without having to sacrifice my love of saxophone. For that I am truly thankful, as I have truly met some of the best people I have ever met and am glad to call many of them my friends for the rest of my life.”

During Saturday’s graduation, Peter  will receive a bachelor’s of science in engineering with minors in math and computer information systems. He will join KPMG as an IT attestation associate doing information systems consulting for federal government clients.

Coming tomorrow: Dave Stevens and Jessie Taylor….

(photo of Matt and Peter by Mike Miriello)

2012: What does the future hold?

The beginning of any new year fuels speculation. What will the coming months hold? This year, 2012, has seen more than a little speculating. While no one can predict the future, some changes — some exciting changes — have already been set in motion at JMU.

Here’s a look ahead at some of the year’s most significant changes that James Madison University will see this year.

In June, the university with say farewell to its fifth president, Dr. Linwood Rose, and get to know its sixth, Jonathan Alger, J.D. The transition, carefully and thoughfully planned by the board and the Rose administration, should propel JMU into a bright future. Like his predecessors, president-elect Alger will begin to put his mark on the university. If history is any indication, the university will benefit from yet another talented leader.

JMU will change from a university with six colleges and a graduate school to one with seven colleges. Last September the board of visitors approved a new academic alignment recommendation to divide the College of Integrated Science and Technology into two new colleges:  the College of Health and Behavioral Studies and the College of Applied Sciences and Engineering.

In May, when graduation returns to the newly expanded Bridgeforth Stadium, the class of 2012 will include the university’s first engineering graduates.

With the opening of the new biosciences building on the east campus this year, most of the sciences, which are currently spread all over campus, will be consolidated.

University Park, a new recreational facility, will open a few miles from campus along Port Republic Road. The new facility, part of the university’s popular and lauded UREC program, will add many exciting opportunities for students to learn and play.

To learn more about some of the exciting changes, click the links below:






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