Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering alumna Lisa Patton (B.S.’20) is VCU’s first recipient of the E. Eugene Carter Opportunity Award, which provides female Hispanic students up to $20,000 to repay subsidized federal loans upon graduation from an engineering program.
Patton reflected on her nontraditional academic path and how this award fits in with it. She also offered advice for other engineering students, especially women in engineering.
Congratulations on this award, Lisa. How did you come to study engineering at VCU?
I moved here from Idaho Falls, Idaho, in 2004. Back in Idaho, I worked as a secretary for a product development company. I was with a great team there and even got to participate in the product design process. I loved it! We developed four products while I was there.
When I came to Richmond, I began working and getting settled and ultimately became an executive assistant at Commonwealth Primary Care.
My mother passed away in 2013. She was extremely proud of my interest in engineering and business. At the end of her life, she asked me to promise her that I would finish my degree. I made that promise. I was not going to let her down. In the fall of 2014, I decided to enroll in the VCU College of Engineering.
How did you balance such a challenging, important life goal with the demands of a full-time job?
First, I want to say that the people I worked for at Commonwealth Primary Care were very, very supportive. I was very lucky to have that kind of support. I also had the support of my father and sister, which was invaluable to me.
I’ll admit that for those first couple of years, my life was “go to work, go to class, go back to work, go home, do homework and repeat.” I knew junior year was going to be really demanding, so I saved as much as I could and was able to go to school full time, just for that year.
To get the most out of that year, I took 18 credit hours each semester. It was intense. I was basically living under a rock, but it was worth it. And I’ll tell you one thing: I never feared a heavy workload again after that.
How did you find out about the E. Eugene Carter Opportunity Award?
Dr. Mossi told me about a loan-repayment program for Hispanic women in engineering that VCU had just become eligible for. I’m so glad she did.
Carter’s story is interesting. He taught at Harvard, and his wife [Rita Rodriguez] was the first full-time female faculty member at Harvard Business School. He was inspired by his wife’s story and wanted to create an opportunity program for other Hispanic women to achieve their potential.
What does receiving the Carter Opportunity Award mean to you?
It’s a huge honor to be VCU’s first recipient. It is also special to be honored as a Hispanic engineer. I am very proud of my heritage. My grandmother's maiden name was Ortega. She married a Patton, which is where my name comes from. I grew up in a family that was very connected to its Mexican and Hispanic roots. We had wonderful traditions growing up. We made tamales, and I remember roasting my own chiles. My sister recently traced our family tree all the way back to Spain.
In a practical sense, this award is a big help to me financially. It has made the loans I took out to finish school much more manageable. I like to say that the debt used to be a mountain, but now it’s a hill.
I think it's remarkable that there are people like Mr. Carter, people who are willing to help students with the high cost of college. I was honored to be involved at all — to get to participate and apply, and then to be awarded. Now I hope someone else will see this interview and say, “You know what, I can do that.”
What are you doing now that you’ve graduated?
I am a process engineer for Ashland Specialty Ingredients. I interned there the summer between junior and senior year. They also let me work for them as much as I could during the school year during my senior year. I was brought on full time in July. I'm grateful and thrilled to be there. The work is fun and diverse, with lots of different projects to do and lots of learning. It's been very rewarding.
Do you have any advice for current students at VCU Engineering?
The VINE [Vertically Integrated Networks for Engineers] group, I think, is important. It puts you with a group of women students, freshman through senior, who get together regularly for coffee and conversation. It’s helpful to see other women doing what you're doing and learn how they got through it. We all have those “I can't do this” moments. And you've got to work through that. Some things will be hard, but you're there to learn. Otherwise, there's no reason to pay to take the class! I think we're very hard on ourselves. I would say, just find a mentor. And the VINE program is a great way to do that.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
The thing I am most proud of is keeping my promise to my mother, Anne Patton, and finishing my education. Her birthday was November 22. She would have been 79. She was my inspiration throughout college, and she’s my inspiration today. I feel her presence all the time. I feel that she is watching me and is happy with what she sees.