Class of 2022: Myers-Lawson professor of practice to walk stage alongside former students
Aleksandra Markovic Graff, who recently completed her doctoral studies in the Vecellio Construction Engineering and Management Program, did so with a full teaching load and a faculty advisor role for the Associated Schools of Construction competition teams.
Time management is important for any graduate student, but for Aleksandra Markovic Graff it’s been absolutely vital.
While working on her doctoral degree from the Vecellio Construction Engineering and Management Program at Virginia Tech, she has balanced a full teaching load as a Pulte Homes Professor of Practice in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction as well as faculty advisor responsibilities for the Associated Schools of Construction (ASC) competition teams. That’s all on top of her role as a wife and new mother to Mina, who turns 2 in May.
“Professor Graff has not only been one of my favorite professors and a fantastic coach, but she has also been an inspiring mentor to me,” said building construction senior Claudia Morgan. “Her teaching and character have helped build the foundation of every student who has gone through this program.”
Graff credits her time as an undergraduate student athlete with her ability to juggle many roles — and do it well. The University of Wisconsin recruited her from Serbia to play tennis after the European Tennis Association ranked the teenager in the top 100. During college, Graff invested nearly 40 hours a week into her sport and hit her way to more than 100 wins in 2012.
“With tennis you are very disciplined,” said Graff. “It’s an individual sport, and you have to do everything yourself.”
While playing tennis, she majored in civil engineering with a concentration in construction engineering management. In her final year at the university, she even added interning at an engineering firm to the equation.
Taking her lessons on and off the court to heart, she set out on her career path determined to push herself to be the best. She worked her way up through the ranks in industry — first with field work and day-to-day operations as a staff engineer, and then leading teams and budgets as a project manager.
But she knew she wanted more. She decided to pursue graduate school while working full time, eventually graduating from Ohio University with a master’s degree in civil engineering that focused on structural engineering. As she expanded her knowledge, her love of teaching and mentoring grew along with it.
Around this time, her husband, Tyler, was interviewing with several collegiate athletic departments, including Virginia Tech. Graff crafted a decisive plan of action based on their future home — stay in the industry if they moved to a big city or pursue teaching if they moved to Blacksburg.
In 2017, her husband joined the Virginia Tech wrestling team support staff as director of performance. So Graff connected with Andrew McCoy, then head of the building construction department, about her teaching aspirations. Today, McCoy serves as associate director of Myers-Lawson and directs the Virginia Center for Housing Research.
"It is rare that we find early career professionals with industry experience who can immediately bring that into the classroom environment,” said McCoy. “Dr. Graff was an excellent fit then and has continued to use her knowledge and experience to improve our program.”
One semester into her new role as a professor of practice, Graff knew she found the perfect fit. “I think it was a natural gravitation towards that teaching path,” she said.
She decided to fully invest in her new career and begin pursuing her Ph.D. Working with her mentor, Jesús M. de la Garza, now a Vecellio Professor Emeritus, she focused her research on a problem she saw during her time in the industry: the disconnect between design and construction.
Through her research, she set a goal to change the working relationship between the two industries. Instead of each one maintaining a separate workflow, she wants to unify construction and the final part of the design phase to save owners money and time.
“I’ve seen a lot of projects that didn’t combine these phases, and they could have done so many things so much better. Now, looking back, how can I be somebody who can help or start that process of change?” said Graff. “If I’m seeing it, there’s a lot more people seeing it, too.”
While working on her research, she was also able to acclimate other students to the industry. She teaches students the basics in Construction Principles I and then in the next semester she gets to see them apply those principles in her Integrated Construction course while still building their knowledge in Construction Principles II.
Graff said her time in industry has shaped her into the professor she is today. She applies a similar mentoring mentality from the workforce to her classroom.
“I always had patience. I always try to treat students fairly and equally, almost as if they were a project engineer that just started,” said Graff. “I treat them the same way that a boss would at an entry-level job.”
She prioritizes real-life applications in her coursework. And many of her students, including Morgan, not only appreciate the academic emphasis but also call Graff their favorite professor.
Graff further pushes students to be their best as faculty advisor for the ASC student competition teams. She successfully coached teams to regional and national wins in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
“It was amazing to see what students could do. They deliver in 12 hours what other students deliver in a whole semester,“ Graff said.
In November, she led the teams even further – to Prague. The teams took their first international trip to compete against schools around the globe and left the Czech Republic with a fourth-place finish. In an unfortunate scheduling conflict, Graff’s concrete team was simultaneously competing in Atlanta as part of regional competitions. So immediately after her international flight landed, she got in the car and drove from Washington, D.C., to Georgia where she was able to see the team earn fourth place and two of her students place first and second individually.
Even after supporting her teams, her busy month still had one major thing left to accomplish — her final defense to add “doctor” to her title.
“I almost didn't sleep that last full week. I was just go-go-go,” Graff said. “That was something that I did when I played tennis in college.”
During her undergraduate days, Graff said she would spend late nights doing homework. In an attempt to stay awake between pages of reading, she set alarms on her phone every few hours.
“I still believe that playing tennis and getting a degree in civil engineering was harder,” she said.
Now that her schedule is freeing up, she’s preparing to spend more time with her daughter and continue to grow the ASC competition teams. On Dec. 16, Graff will walk alongside her students on the graduation stage in Cassell Coliseum. It’s a moment that very few people get to experience.
“My students and I are all walking this path together, and we all are going toward a goal that we want to reach,” said Graff. “Being able to walk along the same path, just for a different degree, is going to feel really unique.”