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ASEE’s president, Sarah A. Rajala, has expanded opportunities in engineering through persuasion, mentoring and leading by example.

As the granddaughter of William Bakewell, the only American on Ernest Shackleton’s legendary expedition to Antarctica, Sarah A. Rajala comes naturally to her independent spirit. And like the 1914 explorers who persevered against shipwreck and suffering, she’s not easily discouraged. Undeterred by those who felt women couldn’t succeed in engineering, Rajala rose to become a professor, then dean, as well as president of ASEE. In the process, she found happiness in the one profession where she least expected it — teaching.

Reared on a small farm in upstate Michigan, Rajala (pronounced RYE-a-la) began her academic life as one of just 13 pupils at a country school that went from kindergarten to eighth grade. For high school she was bused to the big city — Marquette, Mich., population 20,000. In her family, higher education was a given. “There was an assumption that my sisters and I were going to college,” Rajala recalls. “My mother was an elementary school teacher, and it was never questioned that we would get a degree that would help us earn a living throughout our lives.” For most women in the 1960s, a career meant either nursing or teaching at a primary or secondary school, Rajala says. Indeed, both her sisters ended up as nurses. She herself excelled in mathematics, though it was unclear where that interest would lead her.

High-school guidance counselors weren’t much help. “I didn’t get a whole lot of mentoring from them,” she admits. “They certainly weren’t very creative in the encouragement they gave me.” When it came to choosing a college, Rajala settled on Michigan Technological University. “It was two hours from where we lived — far enough away that I didn’t have to live at home and not overwhelming in size, in the 7,000 range. Coming out of a small community, it seemed more comfortable for me.” Though she planned to major in math, like many others, Rajala was attracted by Michigan Tech’s strong engineering programs and switched by the end of freshman year. But she did so against the advice of some professors and friends. “A lot of people thought that the only reason to go to university was to find a husband and told me I couldn’t become an engineer. I said, ‘Why not?’ ”

“A lot of people thought that the only reason to go to university was to find a husband and told me I couldn’t become an engineer. I said, ‘Why not?’ ”

­—Sarah Rajala

The Lure of Teaching

From the outset, Rajala proved to be a leader. Despite being the only woman in her engineering classes, she was selected by her peers to serve as president of two honors organizations. An interest in medical applications led her to physiology and anatomy courses, and between her junior and senior years, an internship at GE Medical Systems in Milwaukee. Continuing on to earn a doctorate at Rice University in Houston, she focused on biomedical engineering, with the goal of working in industry. “I thought about teaching at the time but didn’t really consider it. Over the years I had spent a considerable amount of time in my mother’s classrooms and helped her grading papers, creating bulletin boards, etc. I just didn’t think that was what I was interested in.”

The move to Houston was a welcome change for Rajala. Though she received a top-notch education at Michigan Tech, she was more than ready to leave small-town Houghton, Mich., for a major urban center. “Certainly, having the opportunity to live in a city with much more diversity was refreshing. So, too, was the wide variety of restaurants, theaters, museums and shopping. The university environment was also very different. Rice is a small, private university with a strong sense of community among the students and faculty. They also had a number of other women graduate students in the department of electrical engineering.”

It was while working on a Ph.D. in image restoration that Rajala got hooked on teaching. “The more I got involved with it, the more I enjoyed it. I loved working with students and loved being able to mentor and encourage them. It all kept coming back to the teaching side that I originally thought I didn’t want to do,” she says with a laugh. For students like Faye Beaudreaux-Bartels, Rajala proved to be a support both in the classroom and out. “Sarah organized a softball team known as the Ohm Runs,” Beaudreaux-Bartels remembers. “It helped establish a camaraderie and support among the grad students at the time that was very important — as well as letting us blow off steam from the stress, of course.” Beaudreaux-Bartels, currently serving as the chair of electrical, computer and biomedical engineering at the University of Rhode Island, describes her former mentor as a “no-nonsense type of person — very bright, very hardworking, someone who showed that success didn’t depend on whether you were male or female.”

‘An Advocate and a Mentor’

After completing her doctorate in 1979, Rajala moved with her husband, Jim Aanstoos, to North Carolina. Rajala was hired by North Carolina State University to teach in the electrical and computer engineering department, and Aanstoos got a job at the Research Triangle Institute. “N.C. State was a wonderful place to have a career because there were a lot of changes going on. I had a chance to develop leadership skills, do the teaching I loved to do and research. It sort of all came together there.”

While at North Carolina State, Rajala helped create a university-industry collaborative research center funded by the National Science Foundation, the Center for Advanced Computing and Communication. She served as its director for three years. As the first female tenure-track professor in her department, she also spearheaded better representation and visibility of women and minorities at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. “She was a leader from the very moment when she stepped on campus,” declares Larry Monteith, who was dean of engineering at N.C. State and later chancellor from 1989 to 1998. “Sarah had a big impact on young women in those disciplines that are still underrepresented, providing both the social network as well as the academic connections to be successful. She also played a dominant role in making the campus more female friendly to staff and students.”

That included helping to create a maternity-leave policy for tenure-track faculty members where none had existed. When Rajala was pregnant with the first of her two children, she approached Monteith. He was supportive from the start, says Rajala, and raised some interesting questions. In framing the new policy, “Larry said, ‘Well, what do we do for men if they have a heart attack?’” Rajala adds, “I’ve always joked since then about my two ‘heart attacks’” — Kristen, who graduated in May from Georgetown University with a degree in international politics, and younger daughter Stephanie, a rising sophomore at Mississippi State.

Both Monteith and his successor, Nino Masnari, comment on Rajala’s compassion toward younger faculty and her interest in their professional growth. Among other activities, she organized luncheons for the college of engineering women faculty to encourage them to discuss issues of concern to them. One of the many who benefited from her support was Christine Grant. “Sarah was an advocate and a mentor, nothing real formal, but she was always there to listen and help,” Grant comments. When Grant went to Rajala with an idea for a new position she hoped to pitch to the dean’s office, Rajala provided the needed encouragement. “Sarah was instrumental in telling me to go for it: ‘I think we need that, and I think you should try it.’ I got the job, the associate dean of faculty development and special initiatives, and I’ve never been happier professionally,” says Grant, who was honored in 2003 with a Presidential Award for mentoring from the National Science Foundation,

“What I’ve learned from her is, if you decide to do something, you know what the rules are and you make a decision, and you go ahead and do it.” Grant says, adding, “She wasn’t jumping up and down saying ‘woman this’ and ‘woman that,’ but she was subtly making changes, living within the rules and doing it all by herself.”

Dean of Engineering

By this point, Rajala had switched to administration, first as the associate dean for academic affairs in 1996 and associate dean for research and graduate programs in the college of engineering in 2002. A noted benefit of both positions, Rajala says, is that they enabled her to make a greater impact upon engineering programs’ minority representation. She also helped start up the Women in Engineering program, which eventually expanded to include K-12 outreach. For Laura Bottomley, whom Rajala tapped as head of the program, Rajala was the ideal boss. “She let me do what I wanted to do. That didn’t mean she didn’t give me advice and direction, [but] she didn’t try to manage everything I did. She was also a wonderful personal mentor, someone who helped me understand how to balance career and family.”

“She wasn’t jumping up and down saying ‘woman this’ and ‘woman that,’ but she was subtly making changes, living within the rules and doing it all by herself.

—Christine Grant, associate professor of engineering, North Carolina State University

Rajala decided that to become a dean, first she would have to get experience as a department head, “a check mark that was important along the way.” So after 27 years at N.C. State, in 2006, she accepted an offer from Mississippi State University to become the James Worth Bagley chair and head of the department of electrical and computer engineering. Her work at the college clearly impressed everyone: In June 2008, Rajala was appointed Mississippi State’s first female dean of engineering. “During the interview process, she articulated a strong vision for the future of the Bagley College of Engineering, and her leadership ability resonated well with faculty, staff and students,” says Dr. Peter Rabideau, provost and vice president for academic affairs. He adds, “We are very excited about having our new dean as the incoming president of ASEE.” 

Looking back upon a career in which she has authored nearly 200 publications and received such honors as the IEEE Education Society Achievement Award, the ASEE Electrical and Computer Engineering Division Educator of the Year, and Fellow awards from both ASEE and IEEE, Rajala notes with modesty, “I was fortunate to have had the opportunities I had.” Larry Monteith believes fortune had little to do with it: “Whether it was her education, her family or something else, I don’t know. But she had a personality that would have succeeded under any circumstance. It was all her own doing.”

Perhaps human qualities pass down through the generations. For William Bakewell, it was the lure of the unknown that led him to the Antarctic — and pure grit that helped him survive after the expedition ship was crushed by ice floes. Two generations later, Bakewell’s granddaughter continues to set her own compass, forging a path for all who come after. As Nino Masnari comments, “Sarah has always had the grace and intelligence to earn people’s affection and their respect, too. She can handle any position she tries: dean, provost — you name it.”

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.




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