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Synergy Conference sparks graduate students’ networking and skills development

For two days in March, Squires Student Center became a synergy center as hundreds of students, faculty members, alumni, and New River Valley business and government leaders converged on the building for a day of interactive workshops, engagement initiatives, and networking.

The inaugural , an event hosted by the (CEED), focused on stimulating the New River Valley workforce, building community connections across STEM fields, and developing graduate students for their lives beyond their degree journey.

The launched CEED in 1992 to encourage and support undergraduate and graduate engineering students across the university’s programs and campuses with a focus on the underrepresented population.

CEED Director of Graduate Student Programs Tremayne “Trey” Waller said the conference was the brainchild of CEED Executive Director , who also is the College of Engineering associate dean of equity and engagement.

“We’ve focused a lot on undergraduate students,” Waller said. “Bev came to me in August and said we need to do a conference around and for graduate students.”

Student voices

With a green light, two months of planning time, and nothing in the budget, Waller and CEED Assistant Director Kaiya Jennings pulled together a committee and set to work. Waller said Jennings was instrumental in implementing the conference, crafting workshop titles, and establishing partnerships with companies with the aim of curating an inclusive and dynamic event.

Graduate students were a part of the planning process from the start, serving as committee members and volunteers at the event. “The thing I loved was most was the student voice at the center,” Waller said. “There were graduate students involved from day one.”

“Our ultimate goal was to offer attendees not only valuable insights and resources but also a sense of unity and belonging,” Jennings said. “We’re truly proud of the collaborative effort and the meaningful impact we achieved together.”

Laying the groundwork

Waller said event was a collaborative effort with partners from across the university and beyond. “The program would not have been possible without the departments, staff, faculty members, administrators, and students who gave to make it happen,” he said.

The was among the partners and said the conference and its themes, and CEED itself, set the groundwork for extending such work beyond the College of Engineering. Such initiatives played a crucial role in Virginia Tech being awarded the , which is spearheaded by the Graduate School.  

‘We were delighted to contribute to this event as it aligns with our commitment to fostering systemic change in our graduate programs,” Surprenant said. “Our goals, as outlined in the Sloan proposal, include addressing equity gaps and ensuring the success of all students.”

Key themes

From the start, the committee wanted the event to be interactive with opportunities for students to engage with the speakers, network with attendees, and meet other students. The committee also wanted individuals who were not part of the university community to “come and share,” Waller said.

Many of those business and government leaders wanted students to know that the region has jobs for graduates and provided information about employment opportunities. “There were many conversations about staying in the New River Valley after graduation,” Waller said.

Two of the key themes repeated throughout the conference were mental health and the message that students are not alone. “You don’t have to face this alone,” Waller said.

“The Synergy Conference provided graduate students with a valuable opportunity to exchange ideas, broaden their knowledge base, and enhance both their personal and professional growth,” Watford said. “It was our goal to provide engaging sessions and networking opportunities.”

Students’ reactions

Students agreed with this assessment. Saadia Ali, a doctoral student in the , said the wide range of strategies used in the sessions, the panel discussions, and opportunities to network with prospective employers offered support to all of the attendees. “The overall environment was conducive to feel a sense of community and belonging with one another,” Ali said.

Third-year doctoral student Amirah Wright, studying , said the conference helped her build skills she will need in the work world, such as negotiating, networking effectively, and building a strong resume. “This conference was important because it teaches students skills that can lead them into their professional careers, regardless of what industry it is,” she said. “These include both technical and soft skills they can utilize not only for their first job, but throughout their careers.”

Leo Olivera, who is earning a master’s degree in , said he gained “a community of people” traveling the same path toward their degrees on whom he can support and count on for support. “I think it is important for people with similar backgrounds in higher education to collaborate together in creating an environment where we can both learn from and acknowledge each other,” he said.

Waller said CEED already is thinking forward to next year’s Synergy Conference.

Conference partners