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Women in Industry: Julie Ross

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Since 1921, Virginia Tech has seen thousands of trailblazing women make their mark on the world, transforming industries and shattering glass ceilings. Julie Ross is making her mark in engineering and higher education. Ross is dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering.
Julie Ross turned her curiosity into a career. "I was always very curious and wanted to get out and see the world and know what was out there." Julie, dean of Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, says hard work was part of her upbringing. "My parents, my grandparents, my teachers. This maybe is going to sound a little bit strange, but they didn't treat me like I was special. So I grew up in a really small, rural farming community in Indiana. People who worked hard. The work was physically hard. My grandfather was a farmer. You learned how to work hard and you worked until the job was done and you don't complain about it because you got to do the work anyway, so you might as well just get at it." She was among a handful of students at a small school in an accelerated academic group. "I wasn't treated any differently because I was the only girl in the group. I was just one of them and the expectations for us were really high and they really pushed us. And so I look at it now, and sometimes people ask me, are you comfortable being the only woman in the room? And I am because I feel like I kinda grew up that way. Right. So I am very comfortable being the only woman in a room and sometimes I don't even notice it unless somebody points it out to me." Eager to go to college and fiercely independent, Julie didn't wait for her parents to move her in. "Yeah, my parents may never forgive me. I don't know. Like now I can't believe I did that right, to my parents but I did. I did. My mom was at work and I was ready to move in and a friend of mine was getting ready to move some of his stuff in and he told me he was like headed to West Lafayette and I was like, you know, she doesn't get off until three o'clock and like, I don't feel like waiting. And I just stuck like a bunch of my stuff in his car and I left, and my mom got home from work and I had moved to college." Now a mother of two daughters, Julie shares how they discuss working in male-dominated fields. "I listen a lot, to be honest. I listen a lot, and I think unfortunately sometimes what I hear sounds, sounds familiar to me in terms of things that they've experienced or things that I would have hoped that by now they wouldn't be experiencing. But also, we talk a lot about being unafraid. Do what do what you're going to do." She's still leans on lessons she learned as a young mom trying to get it all done. Set boundaries and don't apologize for it. "If you know what your values are and you know what matters to you, and you're willing to think about where you're going to draw your lines and not apologize for drawing your lines. But telling people where they are. Like these are the boundaries I'm setting, and this is why, and I really care about this organization. I care about this work that these are the boundaries I'm setting and this is why, I feel like that works. And you don't have to be leading the organization to be able to say it. I think people at all different levels of the organization can say it." Today as the College of Engineering's the first female dean, Julie is not only a role model for women in STEM, but an advocate, a self-proclaimed inclusive excellence advocate. "Let's start with the excellence. That means we're going to do everything, all the time, as well as we possibly can. And tomorrow we strive to be better than we are today. People hear the word inclusive and they think a lot about work in diversity and that's part of it. But it goes well beyond that. It's not just about who is here. It's about who's here, what experience are they having, and how are they part of the conversation and part of the community? And so when we talk about being inclusive, it's about making sure that we're building a community where everybody's voice matters. And we need all different creative ideas on the table for us to be able to solve the kinds of problems we have to solve today. And so when I think about inclusive excellence to me, it's about building a community where we can be excellent, we can reach that level of performance. Because we've got the voices in the room that we need to hear from." As Dean, Julie looks to help students and faculty solve today's greatest challenges. The ongoing pandemic influenced her approach. "The biggest lessons out of that is for us to learn how do change when we have to do change, right? Because the next big thing, let's hope it's an another pandemic or another wave. But it'll be something, whatever it is. And if we've built the organizational capacity, both in terms of our processes but also in terms of our people, right, to be able to respond, to be nimble, to be agile, to be more comfortable being uncomfortable with change."