June 4, 2008
Dr. Sarah Rajala grew-up on a small farm in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Many may say the trials, tribulations and responsibilities of growing up on the family farm is what gave Rajala the perseverance to succeed in her career. She will tell you that the experience gave her the confidence and independence to explore new opportunities, even when people would tell her when something could not be done. For instance, Rajala was ahead of her time in two ways. Her dream was to become an engineer during a time when women were expected to stay home and take care of the family or become a teacher or nurse. Those were the only professions that were “socially” acceptable for women when Rajala enrolled in college at Michigan Technological University.
“I was only the third woman to graduate from the university with an electrical engineering degree,” said Rajala. “I was the only woman in my graduating class and recall often being told that women couldn’t be engineers.”
After graduating from Rice University with her master’s and doctorate degrees, Rajala interviewed for both corporate engineering jobs and faculty positions, but the position she accepted was as an assistant professor at North Carolina State University.
“My decision to take that position was based on the fact that when I was a teaching assistant — during graduate school — mentoring others, for me, was very rewarding,” said Rajala. “I didn’t realize how much positive impact that has on a student in building their self-confidence until they would convey that to me after completing the class.”
Rajala stayed at NC State for 27 years, moving up the ranks from assistant to associate professor, and then was promoted to full professor. After that she served as the director of a university advanced computing and communication research center — serving as an industrial, academic and government liaison — helping her secure the position as the associate dean for academic affairs and later the appointment for the position of associate dean for research and graduate programs. Rajala explained how she kept a fresh learning perspective while in the same place for so many years.
“I’ve always been interested in fostering the professional development of individuals – faculty, staff, and students, so each can achieve their maximum potential,” but the key she said, “Is to get each one’s individual accomplishments aligned so that the team output is even greater than the sum of the individual accomplishments.”
Networking and building relationships is a good way to help people make important contributions. And as Rajala realizes, empowering people is an important factor in the success of any college of engineering, as well as the ability to leverage state resources with external sources of funding.
“Honesty is very important to me. I was very happy serving as head of the department of electrical and computer engineering,” expressed Rajala. “During the past year I made good progress, but there was a lot there that I wanted to accomplish. At the same time, I am very excited about serving as dean of the Bagley College of Engineering and I look forward to working with our alumni and the Dean’s Advisory Counsel to achieve the college’s goal of being one of the top 50 colleges of engineering and extending that vision as we move forward.”
Life for the past 16 months has been very busy for Rajala. In 2007 she accepted the position as head of the Mississippi State electrical and computer engineering department, was appointed the James Worth Bagley Chair of Engineering, was awarded with honors that include, president elect for the American Society of Engineering for Education (ASEE), the ASEE Electrical and Computer Engineering Division Educator of the Year, promotion to Fellow of ASEE, and honored with the IEEE Education Society Achievement Award. It is no surprise that 2008 has brought her even greater accolades. Mississippi State recently named Rajala the dean of the Bagley College of Engineering and she will be serving as the new ASEE 2008 president.
“I’ve been very fortunate this past year-and–a-half,” said Rajala. “I guess you come to a point in your career where you have a record that you have built upon your entire life and the impact of your contributions are recognized. Being named dean of the Bagley College of Engineering is fulfillment of a lifelong dream of hard work and achievements.”
Rajala recently released her latest book, “Designing Better Engineering Education through Assessment,” as well as transitioned from the head of the electrical and computer engineering department into the college’s leadership chair on the second floor of McCain. In her 500 or so days of serving at the university, she worked her way up and into the position of Dr. Sarah Rajala, dean of the Bagley College of Engineering. The appointment fulfills two of Rajala’s dreams, she is not only the top “dawg” engineer at the college, but she is the first female, ever, to serve as dean of the college.