Paying it Forward: Bridgewater alumni stay connected to the College and current students in meaningful ways

Three Bridgewater students talk with a business representative at the Career Fair For Career Exploration Day in October 2022, 35 alumni and business partners came to campus to network with more than 150 students about job and internship opportunities.

The network that Bridgewater students build extends beyond connections with classmates and professors. BC alumni often provide some of the greatest insights into career paths and serve as excellent resources for current students. Bridgewater graduates remain engaged with the school in numerous and diverse ways.

Professor Derli Amaral points to a chalkboard during a foundations of engineering class
Bridgewater College Assistant Professor of Applied Physics and Mechanical Engineering Dr. Derli Amaral during his Foundations of Engineering course at BC.

Engineering Major

In November, the College announced the fall 2023 launch of an engineering major, pending approval from the College’s accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOCS), in summer 2023. Housed in the newly renamed Department of Engineering and Physics, the major was devised in response to student interest. In the last few years, one of the top five major indications for admitted students was engineering. Previously, the College offered an applied physics major, and students would often go on to do graduate work in engineering or enter into one of two dual degree programs BC had with other institutions. Now, students will have a more accessible and direct path to employment in the field of engineering. In addition, the College’s engineering major is designed to meet accreditation standards set by the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

To aid in the engineering major development process, Dean of the School of Natural Sciences Dr. Phil Spickler asked 10 Bridgewater College physics alumni who work in a variety of engineering disciplines—mechanical, aerospace, civil and electrical—to serve on an advisory board. In summer 2020, Spickler and the board met three times via Zoom to discuss changes to the applied physics curriculum to align with a general engineering degree as well as the current state of the workforce and hiring practices. The group’s input helped devise an engineering major that incorporates a blend of experiential and theoretical learning in mathematics, computer-aided design and fabrications, 3-D modeling, electronics and control systems and mechanical design, with optional concentrations in mechanical engineering and mechatronics.

Advisory board member Bradley Cox ’86 has worked as an engineer for more than 35 years and currently works as an advisory engineer with Framatome in Lynchburg, Va. He designs software and hardware used to control and monitor nuclear power plants. Both he and his son, Taylor Cox ’15, graduated with physics degrees from BC, and both went on to complete their master’s degrees before working in the engineering field. Bradley Cox says hiring managers are increasingly seeking graduates with named engineering degrees from ABET-accredited institutions.

“Helping the staff at Bridgewater determine how they can make small changes to their applied physics program that will allow students to directly enter and succeed in engineering has been fulfilling,” Bradley Cox says.

The alumni group also shared how important it was for students to get lab and fabrication experience early, as almost all said it was one of their favorite courses during their degree studies. Starting this fall, Bridgewater began offering sequential Foundations in Engineering 101 and 102 courses. When Cox came back to campus for Homecoming this year, he was thrilled to talk with Assistant Professor of Applied Physics and Mechanical Engineering Dr. Derli Amaral Jr. and learn that Amaral’s students were already learning how to model things in CAD applications and working toward producing their own designs with 3-D printers.

“Such personalized, hands-on learning would be unlikely in an introductory class with 300-plus students as is typical at a larger university,” Cox says.

Fellow advisory board member Ethan McBryde ’16 got his master’s in civil engineering from Virginia Tech after graduating from Bridgewater. He currently works for EDC, in Midlothian, Va., as a project manager and says in the past couple of years he has seen design firms that his company uses struggle to keep up with the workload because they cannot find enough engineers.

“I think this degree program is great because it opens the door for new students and gives them more routes to take after graduating,” McBryde says.

Career Exploration

In October, the Center for Career Development relaunched Career Exploration Day, a popular event for alumni and students alike. This year, more than 35 business and alumni partners attended the event to talk with more than 150 students about internship and job opportunities, as well as to answer any questions from students.

“Having students engage with alumni is one of the most powerful tools for getting them to understand the transition from college to career,” says Sherry Talbott, Associate Director of Student Success and Programming.

Jen Nelson, Director of the Center for Career Development, says the center is continually offering ways for alumni and students to connect, including a Career Fair in the spring and welcoming back alumni to campus to speak on career-focused panels with other BC graduates from similar disciplines as well as to share their individual career journeys with classes.

“We’re focused on preparing our students to be career-ready and giving them opportunities that will help them after they graduate,” Nelson says.

Advice and Mentorship

Past Bridgewater College Alumni Association President Jeffrey Miller ‘93 has given back to BC in a variety of ways. In October 2021, he led a workshop hosted by the Career Center on navigating the federal job application process. Miller, who currently serves as Director of Management Support for the U.S. Department of Education and has worked for other governmental agencies including FEMA, the Federal Highway Administration and the Capitol Police, says every career stop has been a learning opportunity. He has also served on a College panel on diversity, volunteered at career fairs and spoken to BC student groups who have visited Washington, D.C. He enjoys serving as a mentor to recent alumni and says “staying connected keeps me grounded in what really matters in life, which is to invest in the future.”

“Someone gave of themselves to BC to allow me to get an education, and I give of my time, contributions and experience in order to pay it forward to the future of BC,” he says. “We all need to make sure that BC continues to be relevant in a complex world.”

— By Jessica Luck