Every year in the small agricultural town of Walkersville, Maryland, the high school’s graduating class writes their post-graduation plans next to their name on a wall. Susan Kolbay, who’d lived in Walkersville all her life, took a pen to the wall and filled in “Virginia Tech.”
In 1997, she packed up and headed to a town with a population about nine times the size of her hometown. Armed with a love of science and her dad’s encouragement to explore engineering, she arrived on the campus she’d fallen in love with months before during a tour as a general engineering major.
Now a 2002 mechanical engineering alumna with a concentration in green engineering and a professional engineer’s license in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., Kolbay designs buildings in metro D.C. for a living and gives back to Virginia Tech in her spare time.
She credits Virginia Tech with unlocking career possibilities she never imagined while living in the town where she went to kindergarten with most of the more than 200 classmates she graduated from high school with. It’s why she now gives back philanthropically and with her time to Virginia Tech.
“Education is the path to freedom,” Kolbay said. “I feel like I got out of a small town by going to school and getting educated, and then the world just opened doors for me because I had an education.”
Kolbay intends to hold the door open for the Hokies that follow. Her financial contributions to the school help the College of Engineering provide scholarships and support systems for students and can fund conference travel and research. Her recent appointment to the Department of Mechanical Engineering Advisory Board, meanwhile, helps her advocate for constant improvements to the department that will further enable student success.
But her advocacy for students and education doesn’t end there. While she was pursuing her undergraduate degree in Blacksburg, she volunteered with friends at a local elementary school, tutoring young students and helping them with their homework.
Now, in Northern Virginia, she helps tutor adults going back to high school to earn their diplomas.
“I always feel like if you can just get a little bit of education, it's your path to choosing what you want to do,” Kolbay said.
Still, while education provides more options, Kolbay’s best advice to other students is to keep an open mind to all of those possibilities.
After her graduation in 2002, a tough post-9/11 job market limited work prospects, but between Engineering Expo and Career Services, she was able to get her resume in front of other Virginia Tech alumni at an architecture and engineering firm. After accepting the job, she began designing building systems and realized her love for the work.
“I had no idea that I would enjoy doing that, but jobs were tight when I was coming out of school,” Kolbay said. “I think being open-minded really paid off because I was like, ‘I'm not too sure this is what I want to do, but there's not a lot of jobs right now, I’m going to go try this out.’ It worked out for me and I stuck with it.”
Kolbay currently provides engineering expertise for Reston, Virginia-based defense company Leidos. Outside of work, she’s looking forward to serving on the Department of Mechanical Engineering Advisory Board.
She hopes to provide a unique voice to the increasingly diverse board, which advises the department on curriculum recommendations based on observed industry needs.
Kolbay remembers one particularly enjoyable summer she spent in Blacksburg running around town to collect data from parking meters for a project she worked on for associate professor Al Wicks. In her new advisory board role, she’ll be able to share her insight on why hands-on experiences like this are important for Hokies entering the workforce.
“Somebody else did it for me, and I know that that's the only way that the programs actually work is that people have to donate time and money, and it's not some magical tree that drops money into the school — it's people that care about the school,” she said.
Another perk of being on the board? More trips to Virginia Tech.
“It just feels like a special place,” Kolbay said. “It really is home for me — I do feel like I'm driving home when I am driving south on [interstate] 81.”
Written by Erica Corder