When Bevlee Watford heard an anonymous donor had given $100,000 to the Department of Engineering Education to establish an endowment in her name, she only had one question. Why her?

“I was really surprised,” said Watford, who serves as the associate dean for equity and engagement in the College of Engineering, and the executive director for the Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED). “I can’t really fathom who would do something like that. It’s really an honor, but what did I do that somebody thought was so good?”

For the home of the endowment, the donors selected the Department of Engineering Education, one they described as “unique, excellent, and with a culture of continuous improvement” they want to keep going.

As for Watford, the myriad reasons why she was chosen to be the namesake for the two new doctoral student awards span her nearly three decades at Virginia Tech.

A pioneer in engineering education, Watford founded CEED, serves as a graduate committee member, and mentors undergraduates and Ph.D. candidates alike, in addition to her numerous contributions to the engineering profession.

Kirsten Davis and Cynthia Hampton, as the inaugural recipients of the Bevlee Artis Watford Outstanding Dissertation and Doctoral Student Awards, are more honored to receive an award named for Watford than they are for the accolade itself.

“What struck me more than anything is the award is named after Watford, and the whole point of it is to honor her legacy,” said Hampton, the recipient of the Doctoral Student Award. “During my time at Virginia Tech, she guided me and helped me in more ways than I even knew I needed.”

For Davis, who received the Outstanding Dissertation Award for her research on how to intentionally design global experiences for engineering students, this award connects to Watford’s own support of the Rising Sophomore Abroad Program.

This program highlights a unique opportunity for engineering students: study abroad, which is something Davis took advantage of in her undergraduate years.

“When I went to actually work as an engineer, I realized that I was using those intercultural skills in the projects I was doing,” she said. “I was collaborating with people in different countries and coordinating teams that were bringing different cultures together. I felt I was better prepared to do that, because I had these experiences that my colleagues didn’t.”

Davis came to the engineering education Ph.D. program with this mindset, intent on figuring out how to make intercultural learning available to student engineers through traditional study abroad programs and classroom integration.

She studied programs like the Rising Sophomore Abroad Program to see how they support students’ development across a wide range of outcomes, and explored how different data collection and assessment approaches can provide new perspectives on student learning.

Since completing her doctorate in April 2020, Davis has joined the faculty ranks as assistant professor of engineering education at Purdue University.

She was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant to reimagine international research experiences for students in a virtual space. Much like she did while at Virginia Tech, she’ll be working on the grant with David Knight, her former advisor, and Nicole Sanderlin.

The Outstanding Doctoral Student Award recognizes Hampton’s wide range of achievements in research, outreach and teaching. She joined the university in 2014 as a program assistant in CEED, and quickly became a role model and a relentless advocate for others.

For Hampton, it was a life-changing experience to work in both the engineering education department under Stephanie Adams’ department leadership, and in CEED, with Watford, her role models of Black women leading in academics.

“We say all the time representation matters, but it really, really does,” Hampton said. “I think seeing her path, learning over the years of Watford’s story, and being able to have the privilege of working in engineering education, a space that she helped pioneer – and the same with Adams – it’s a space in which you feel great responsibility, but it’s where you feel seen and heard. They taught me the importance of what spaces should look like and what they should feel like.”

Her sense of responsibility extends to many aspects of her professional career: the numerous students she’s mentored, the programmatic efforts she pushed through CEED, and even her NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, with which she focused on understanding systemic change efforts to promote equity and inclusion with the desire to broaden participation work in engineering education. During her fellowship, she looked at the experiences of majority engineering faculty change agents.

“I started courses in change management and organizational change, and they really spoke to how I tried to view systemic issues,” said Hampton, “Through all the systems thinking, and systems dynamics, I thought, OK, we can take these types of ways of thinking, of going beyond the surface level, and apply it to what’s going on in engineering education.”

Hampton, who completed her doctorate in December 2020, continues her influential work as a post-doctoral research associate for the University of Colorado Boulder. She still serves as a mentor to students, regardless of their location.

“I definitely have an open-door policy to students no matter what the circumstances are,” Hampton said. “I think that mentoring – both receiving it and giving it – has been a huge part of my educational journey, even now.”

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