At this season of giving, chemical engineering alumna Mary Parker Davis’ thoughts turn to recruitment.

She and husband Mark, a former Virginia Tech chemical engineering professor, said they want to encourage chemical engineering alumni to follow their lead in supporting student success through endowed scholarships.

Last December, the couple put their money where their hearts are, and this semester, three high-achieving chemical engineering undergraduates were chosen as the inaugural recipients of the Mary P. and Mark E. Davis Scholarship. This scholarship provides significant financial support to offset tuition for up to three years for qualified students. Each year, a new scholar will be chosen and added to the program.

The scholarship already has impacted the recipients in big ways.

Hailey Foreman, a junior from Pennsylvania, got the award notice by email this summer while working as an intern at Estée Lauder. It came shortly before her mother died of a genetic form of lung cancer, a loss that has touched every part of Foreman’s life. Foreman said the Davis scholarship has been a bright spot during this time of grief, and it will make carrying on her mother’s legacy of working in research and development easier. Her mom spent much of her career at Hershey's.

“She was so excited to hear about the scholarship, which gave her a happy moment amongst her rough days toward the end of her life,” Foreman said. “It meant so much to me to be able to talk to her and video chat with her and see her smile. She was always the happiest when I was happy in life.”

All the recipients credit the Davis gift for moving them toward their future goals and relieving financial pressure on them and their families.

“It was a big thing for me,” senior Amelia Kidd said. “My dad cried when I told him. It’s taken a financial weight off my parents’ shoulders.”

It had an emotional impact on the Roanoke, Virginia, native as well. She got the notification on her phone while working on an experiment in her summer Unit Operations Lab — a rite of passage for chemical engineering students.

“That course was the hardest thing I've ever done,” Kidd said. “All the time and effort that I’ve put into the program and my grades — it’s encouraging to have that be recognized.”

Sara Miller, a sophomore from Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, said the Davis scholarship will not only give her more flexibility in making future career choices, but also has made concentrating on her coursework easier. The student debt crisis and high student housing costs makes budgeting for college difficult, she said.

But the Davis scholarship “has taken a lot of the financial burden off of me, so it makes it easier to study in my classes,” Miller said. “I'm not extremely stressed about how I’m going to pay for housing, food, and school. It's nice to know that a large portion of your tuition is covered, so then you can afford housing.”

The gift provides substantial annual support for each recipient. To qualify, students must apply to the College of Engineering’s general scholarship program, demonstrate academic excellence, and participate in at least one of a handful of designated student organizations that support women in STEM.

Mark and Mary Davis portrait
The Mary P. (right) and Mark E. Davis Scholarship covers chemical engineering undergraduate tuition for up to three years. Mary is an alumna of the department, who went into business, and Mark is a former Virginia Tech chemical engineering professor, now at Caltech. Photo courtesy of the Davis family.

The institutional impact of the gift also has been significant.

The Davis scholarship nearly has doubled the undergraduate support available to chemical engineering students, according to Aaron Goldstein, who leads the department’s scholarship selection committee. The hope is to make the major an easier financial choice for students, and to do that, department leadership wants to continue growing scholarships.

“Many chemical engineering alumni have gone on to successful, impactful careers in biotechnology, energy, and the environment, and also in medicine, business, academia, and law,” department head Steven Wrenn said. “I encourage all our alumni to think about supporting the next generations of chemical engineers who will be needed to solve many of society's greatest challenges — finding new vaccines and developing methods of carbon capture to name just a few.”

A native of New Orleans, Mary Davis received her degree in 1981 at a time when women were underrepresented in the profession. She said she could count her female classmates on both hands, with fingers left over. But she didn’t feel any discrimination from her male classmates while at Virginia Tech.

“I felt like they were my brothers,” Davis said. “They were all accepting, and I still keep in contact with several of them.”

The proportion of women in STEM fields has increased since Davis graduated, but women still remain underrepresented. According to a 2017 UNESCO report, only about 30 percent of STEM jobs worldwide are held by women.

Davis said she hopes her gift can help speed up progress.

“I think more women need to know they can go into engineering,” she said. “I think women in any field bring in a different perspective. You need both the female and the male perspective to make things better.”

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