This story is updated from a September 2017 article highlighting UVA Engineering's Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program, which provides fellowships for diverse cohorts of graduate students. In September 2018, Associate Professor Lisa Colosi Peterson earned the Engineering Systems and Environment Department’s second grant for the program from the U.S. Department of Education. The department now will have a total of $1.2 million to support graduate students through August 2022.

The program already has brought in 14 new graduate students, all from populations traditionally underrepresented in engineering ― women and Hispanic and African-American students ― and more will be recruited over the next several months to apply for the program.

“Our focus will be reimagining and rebuilding the nation's water infrastructure to be smarter, greener and more resilient,” Colosi Peterson said. “These students will be in a position, over a very long term, to help elevate our profession’s contributions to a better world.”

Great graduate students make great engineering programs. When Dean Craig Benson took the helm of UVA Engineering in summer 2015, he made this maxim one of the cornerstones of his efforts to raise UVA's profile — and this meant increasing fellowship support. Benson allocated substantial sums at the School level for graduate fellowships and encouraged departments to secure new sources of fellowship funding.

The experience of the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment demonstrates how careful integration of School and new fellowships can elevate and expand a graduate program. In late 2016, faculty secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) Program.

“By carefully integrating fellowship sources, we were able to attract an unusually dynamic and diverse group of graduate students,” said Peterson, the department’s director of graduate studies. The new fellowship support is a critical reason that the department has been able to grow its graduate program from approximately 55 graduate students several years ago to more than 100 today.

The Foundation for Excellence

This increase in quality and quantity of graduate students makes a dramatic difference because of the fundamental role they play at universities in advancing research and education. Most obviously, they enable faculty members to implement their research agenda. The better their graduate students, the more productive and potentially groundbreaking a faculty member’s research program. In addition, a reputation for having exceptional graduate students can raise a school’s standing by making it easier to recruit high-power and high-potential new faculty. This creates a virtuous circle: High-quality faculty, in turn, make it easier to attract even more capable graduate students.

Graduate students’ roles in elevating undergraduate education are especially pronounced in an institution like UVA Engineering, where undergraduates are welcomed to faculty labs. In addition to serving as graduate teaching assistants, graduate students supervise and mentor students in the laboratory. Accordingly, they are a major influence on the quality of undergraduates the school attracts.

Setting Faculty Free to Recruit Boldly

Faculty members typically recruit their own graduate students and use their grant funding to support them. They do so cautiously, however, worried about enrolling student they cannot fund. If they don’t have funding firmly in hand — even if they have a number of proposals pending — they hesitate to take on new students. Thanks to fellowships, faculty members can sidestep this obstacle.

“The fellowships have enabled us to be much bolder in the way we recruit students,” Peterson said. “You know that even if more students than you expected accept your offer, there will be money to bring them along. And some of the School fellowships are reserved for faculty members who are actively writing grant proposals.”

The department is also using the fellowship programs to reinforce the diversity of its students, which as Peterson pointed out, is one of its hallmarks.

But the GAANN fellowships don’t benefit the department alone. They advance the profession broadly. The GAANN program is designed explicitly to equip the next generation of college faculty members to teach in an area of national need. In applying for the GAANN, Peterson and her colleagues made the case that infrastructure engineering with an emphasis on resiliency is one of those areas — and that UVA Engineering, with its dual emphasis on research and teaching, is an ideal institution to provide this preparation.

“Whether they eventually teach at research-intensive universities or at four-year colleges, these students will be in a position to help elevate the profession over a very long term.”