Class of 2023: Eszter Varga blazes her own trail, brings other female engineers with her
Being the first to achieve anything can be unnerving. There is no roadmap provided, no guide to point you on your way. It’s up to you to carve out a path and set an example for those who will follow.
Eszter Varga, an international student from Hungary, will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering. The profession of aerospace engineer does not exist in her small country, with no translation available in her mother tongue. Despite the lack of opportunities there for women in STEM and higher education in general, she will be one of the first Hungarian women to obtain a degree in aerospace engineering.
In recognition of her academic achievements and service to the university and to industry, Varga has been named the Outstanding Senior for the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.
From Budapest to Blacksburg
As a child growing up in Budapest, Varga was enchanted by her father’s stories about the day American astronauts first set foot on the moon.
“Life for my parents in a [then] communist country was very different than in America,” she said. “I now understand what he saw in space travel that he truly loved. Space exploration has a power vested in it. Aerospace is a unique industry fueled by the ideas of seemingly impossible, and groundbreaking, science.”
Still, Varga was never really curious about exploring STEM-related fields until her mother encouraged her to sign up for a coding workshop at age 16. Through a Hungarian nonprofit initiative called Skool, which provides young women with firsthand insight into careers in the technology industry, Varga wrote her first line of code and successfully programmed a game. She was hooked and even considered software engineering as a possible path before discovering her next obsession: high-level physics and the multiverse theory.
She dreamed of working as an engineer in the space industry, and her family fully supported her career goals. She began researching and applying to colleges in the United States and was pleased to find that a university called Virginia Tech had a major in aerospace engineering – a specialization she had not yet realized existed.
“When I began my education four years ago, I had never studied in English,” said Varga. “I never had access to a research lab or met another aerospace engineer.”
But Blacksburg housed a vibrant, thriving campus, filled with endless opportunities of clubs, design teams, and eye-opening experiences. Making up for lost time, she immersed herself into the campus community. Varga joined organizations such as the Society of Women in Aviation and Space Exploration and the national aerospace engineering honor society, Sigma Gamma Tau. She tried out student design teams, spent time in maker spaces, and worked as an undergraduate laboratory assistant in the Frith Engineering Laboratory.
Varga sought out research opportunities to complement her academic course load. Internships don’t come so easily to international students in aerospace engineering due to citizenship requirements and regulations related to defense and national security. Not letting this slow her down, Varga secured and completed internships with GE Gas & Power in Hungary and with Wisk, a joint venture between the Boeing Company and Kitty Hawk Corporation focused on advanced air mobility.
Sharing her story
“No one in life starts out on an equal playing field, and I did not have much to work with,” said Varga. “From one plane ticket and two bags, the years have multiplied into numerous scholarships, awards, and participation in professional conferences and organizations. My professors, educators, and fellow students helped me pave my path forward. The journey was anything but easy.”
The obstacles Varga has faced as a female engineer and international student have motivated her to uplift others and empower fellow women in engineering. She has served as an ambassador for the Nature Award-winning Association of Hungarian Women in Science since 2017. On campus, she took on leadership positions with the Society of Women in Aviation and Space Exploration and Sigma Gamma Tau. She also serves as a mentor for the The New York Academy of Sciences and as a member of the Female Engineering Recruitment Leadership Team for the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity. She authors a blog focused on her journey as a woman in STEM.
Varga founded the Aerospace Minority Program in 2022, an organization geared toward empowering women and gender minority students studying aerospace and ocean engineering. The education program aims to help participants develop tools to handle challenging situations as well as bring in guest lecturers, offer skill-based workshops, and build connections in a supportive, inclusive environment.
Varga also serves on the aerospace and ocean engineering department’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, alongside Associate Professor Christine Gilbert. “Eszter has a strong drive,” said Gilbert, who chairs the committee of faculty, staff, and students. “She is a prime example of the best that Virginia Tech engineering graduates have to offer our society and our field. She will go on to do great things and will continue to ensure that her community will thrive alongside her.”
Her hard work and dedication to service have earned her accolades on a national level. In her junior year, she represented Virginia Tech as the mid-Atlantic regional winner and national runner-up in Sigma Gamma Tau’s Undergraduate Award competition. More recently, she was recognized as a Diversity Scholar for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and was awarded scholarships, including AIAA’s Leatrice Gregory Pendray Scholarship and the Women in Aviation International’s Yukiko Howell Memorial STEM Scholarship.
Her time as a Hokie is not ending just yet. As a participant in the Accelerated Undergraduate/Graduate Degree program, she has already begun to earn credits toward her graduate degree. Varga plans to stay at Virginia Tech to study aerospace engineering, specializing in systems safety and controls, and will be creating a time variant model for safety systems analysis for electric vertical lift air vehicles.
Being the first at anything, albeit scary, can also be powerful.
“Earning my degree was never only about me,” said Varga. “The greatest gift is to hear that I’ve inspired someone else, and I want young girls from my country to have more opportunities and a better starting point than I did. Their successes are inspiring and motivate me to do more.”