Leesburg inventor, electrical engineer and businessman Joe T. May is giving a hefty donation to his alma mater with the goal of helping promising young people earn a degree and pursue engineering careers.
May, founder and chief technology officer of Leesburg-based company Electronic Instrumentation and Technology (EIT), is giving Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering $5 million to create a pathway to college for 60 first-generation college students a year.
The gift is meant to provide students, starting in ninth grade, with the leadership and experiences to enroll in college, pursue their dream careers and reach their full potential. Over the duration of a five-year pilot, this program should provide 300 students with the opportunity to pursue engineering degrees.
May said it was the people who came alongside him as a teen who helped put him on a successful path. After he was suspended from high school for smoking cigarettes—something that today, May says “wouldn’t raise an eyebrow,” but did then in the small Mennonite community where he lived—his principal only allowed him to graduate if he promised “to do something useful” with his life.
So he joined the U.S. Army, where he was exposed to electronics. He after his military service he enrolled at Virginia Tech to learn more, eventually earning his electrical engineering degree.
“A couple of people in small ways were very helpful in getting me on track and allowed me to end up getting an engineering degree from Virginia Tech,” said May, who went on to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1994 to 2014. “And frankly ending up with a career that’s been very satisfying to me and I think helpful in general.”
It’s one of the reasons May and his family—including his wife, Bobby, and two daughters, Virginia Tech alumna Elaine and University of Virginia alumna Beth—have gifted the College of Engineering $5 million from the May Family Foundation to establish a multi-year program to boost the number of first-generation students who enroll at and graduate from Virginia Tech. The Mays had previously endowed two electrical engineering scholarships in memory of their son Philip A. May, a 1989 Virginia Tech graduate.
Julia M. Ross, Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering at Virginia Tech, said the collective vision for the College of Engineering must include making Virginia Tech engineering program more accessible. “To address society’s greatest challenges we need to attract the best students from all backgrounds and areas of the commonwealth. We could not be more thankful and excited about the possibilities that the gift allows the college and our incoming students.”
The May Family Foundation Pathway for 1st Generation Students will begin its first round of student selections this year. Virginia Tech will recruit 60 Virginia high school students who will be the first in their family to attend college and who show exceptional promise and have the ability to succeed.
Once selected, the students will connect with the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech through four programming sessions. The summer after their freshman year of high school, the selected students will be invited to spend two weeks on Virginia Tech’s campus for the first of four programming sessions. They will receive a hands-on introduction to engineering disciplines through lab tours and makerspaces.
During the second session, the same cohort of students will return to campus before their junior year to mentor rising sophomores in the program and prepare for the SAT. The following year they will return for a final summer camp that focuses on college applications, scholarships searches, and scholarship applications. Parents are also invited to a special session about the college application process.
The students will return their senior year to submit their applications and find out their admission status. For the fourth and final session, matriculating students will attend the STEP Summer Bridge Program, a five-week engineering boot camp, at no cost.
Throughout their high school career, the students will also be invited to attend football games, the annual Engineering Open House and special events typically reserved for College of Engineering students called Hokie Focus, Gateway, and Women’s Preview Weekend.
During their first academic year at Virginia Tech, the students will live in the Hypatia and Galileo living and learning communities, designated only for first-year engineering students.
May said that, over the years, he’s come to see that there are a lot of young people who are very capable, but for whatever reason are not quite on the right track.
“Perhaps a modest amount of assistance from us might make a difference in their life — as it made in mine.”
Details about how students can apply, or how individuals can nominate students, for the May Family Foundation Pathway program will be released in the near future.