Kimmel dean, wife establish FIRST Robotics Scholarship Fund

A new scholarship fund at Western Carolina University being established by the dean of the Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology and his wife is designed to provide financial support to students majoring in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

Created through gift commitments totaling $10,000, the Hopkins and Ray FIRST Robotics Endowed Scholarship Fund will specifically benefit WCU students who have participated in FIRST Robotics competitions.

FIRST, an acronym meaning “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology,” is a not-for-profit public charity that designs accessible, innovative programs that motivate young people to pursue education and career opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math, while also building self-confidence, knowledge and life skills.

Jeffrey L. Ray, dean of the Kimmel School, had been involved with FIRST Robotics competitions for 12 years prior to accepting his new position at WCU last summer, and his wife, Tina Hopkins Ray, is an engineer-turned-educator who has worked with FIRST programs for the past 11 years.

“During our combined experience of 23 years with FIRST Robotics, we have seen so many benefits and opportunities given to students participating in these programs through an extensive scholarship program,” Jeff Ray said. “Our understanding of the benefits of involvement in a STEM program for middle and high school students motivated our desire to give back and promote involvement in a global STEM program.” STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Ray announced the new scholarship opportunity to more than 1,000 high school students taking part in the sixth annual North Carolina First Robotics Competition held March 19-21 in Raleigh, where more than 55 student teams from North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia vied for top honors.

The Rays were introduced to the FIRST program in Michigan, where Jeff Ray served as director and professor in the School of Engineering at Grand Valley State University and where Tina Ray was a volunteer coordinator.

“We were immediately bitten by the bug of the excitement of a competition that combined the excitement of an athletic event, a rock concert and STEM activities together in an event that is the varsity sport of the mind,” he said.

When Jeff Ray was named dean of the School of Engineering Technology and Management at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia, in 2007, he and his wife became involved in the planning activities of the Georgia Peachtree Regional Competition and brought both FIRST Tech Challenge and Lego League competitions to campus there.

And now they are looking to launch FIRST Robotic events in Western North Carolina.

“After I accepted the position of dean at WCU, Tina and I wanted to bring the excitement of FIRST to the mountains of Western North Carolina, and expand opportunities for students interested in careers in engineering and technology,” he said.

Preference for recipients of the Hopkins and Ray FIRST Robotics Endowed Scholarship will go to first-year students with demonstrated success in FIRST Robotics competitions who have declared a major within the engineering and technology disciplines offered by the Kimmel School. In the event that no applicant meets that preference, the award may go to any first-year student majoring in a STEM discipline who has participated in FIRST Robotics competition.

“The scholarship will allow an entering FIRST alumnus to experience the same excitement we have had in our careers as engineers and educators,” Jeff Ray said. “It was a natural fit to endow a scholarship for students who had participated in FIRST Robotics competitions to further their studies and to promote our passion for the engineering and technology profession to prospective students in the Kimmel School.”

The initial Hopkins and Ray FIRST Robotics Endowed Scholarship is expected to be awarded for the fall 2015 semester.

The fund established by the Rays is the latest in a series of new endowed scholarships created at WCU since the installation of Chancellor David O. Belcher in March 2012. During his installation address, Belcher identified raising funds for endowed scholarships as the top philanthropic priority for WCU.

The WCU Board of Trustees in September approved a new minimum threshold of $25,000 for the creation of endowed funds. For more information about supporting or creating a scholarship, contact the WCU Office of Development at 828-227-7124 or visit the website give.wcu.edu.