Meet four members of the first Virginia Tech Innovation Campus class. Their backgrounds vary, but they share a common goal: earning a master’s degree that will quickly advance their careers. They also illustrate some of the student pathways Virginia Tech strives to create and nurture as part of its commitment to the state’s Tech Talent Investment Program.

Grace Knudsen: Embracing cybersecurity

Undergraduate degree: Chemical engineering, Purdue University

Innovation Campus program: Master of Engineering in computer science (part-time)

Grace Knudsen moved to Arlington two years ago to take a job with the federal government. This past spring, she decided to put her interest in cybersecurity to work. She wanted to explore the ways that cybersecurity relates with infrastructure and chemical facilities around the world, which is the kind of knowledge that would help her in her career.

When she searched for graduate programs, Virginia Tech’s Master of Engineering in computer science stood out because it is aimed at people like her who want to expand their education for direct use in a career field.  

“I was looking at a mixture of computer science programs and programs that have a strong cybersecurity focus,” said Knudsen, who holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Purdue University. “None were quite as flexible and approachable and practical as Virginia Tech’s. It’s really about making sure the workforce has the ability to compete.”

Right now, she is working full time while taking two graduate courses a semester. In the fall, her courses were held in the evenings. Knudsen said she’s adjusting to managing both work and school.

“My job is partially in the office and partially at home, so it has definitely been a lot of work and a learned skill of how to manage this new season of life of being in school and being at work,” she said.

Still, Knudsen said that what she is learning through Virginia Tech will make her more marketable as she moves up in her career.

“I am interested in combining this computer security information with all of the information that I already know about these infrastructure facilities, like oil refineries, electrical grids, and hospitals, to find a niche in that market,” she said. “As we live more of our lives online, as we put more of our systems online, security of those systems will be even more important.”

Ebunoluwa Oladipo wants to expand her opportunities for leadership growth with a Master of Engineering degree in computer science, Virginia Tech's new Innovation Campus program.
Ebunoluwa Oladipo wants to expand her opportunities for leadership growth with a Master of Engineering in computer science degree, Virginia Tech's new Innovation Campus program. Photo courtesy of Ebunoluwa Oladipo.

Ebunoluwa Oladipo: Looking for leadership growth

Undergraduate degree: Information technology, George Mason University

Innovation Campus program: Master of Engineering in computer science (part-time)

With 10 years of experience under her belt, Ebunoluwa Oladipo has an established career in the tech sector. She enrolled in Virginia Tech’s Master of Engineering program in computer science because she wanted new leadership opportunities.

Juggling a family with three children, a full-time job, and graduate school is not an easy combination for Oladipo. But she said it’s worth the long hours to be able to take her on-the-job knowledge up a notch.

By concentrating in human-computer interaction through the program, Oladipo said she hopes to pick up the skills that will help her to move into new roles in her full-time career as a user experience designer in Northern Virginia.

“One of the things that motivated me with this degree is growing in a leadership role,” she said. “Having a more broad view of human-computer interaction would help in that. I’m looking to evolve into a strategist role.”

She took one graduate course last fall, and she plans to expand her class load for the spring semester.

Oladipo started her career as a front-end developer after earning a bachelor’s degree in information technology at George Mason University.

So far, she said, her Virginia Tech classes have been engaging and interesting.

“Having that foundation has definitely been helpful, Oladipo said.

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Jordan Gillard hopes to enhance his software engineering skills through Virginia Tech's new Master of Engineering degree in computer science. Photo courtesy of Jordan Gillard.
Jordan Gillard hopes to enhance his software engineering skills through Virginia Tech's new Master of Engineering in computer science degree program. Photo courtesy of Jordan Gillard.

Jordan Gillard: ‘I feel like I can go anywhere’

Undergraduate degree: Geology, University of Iowa

Innovation Campus program: Master of Engineering in computer science (full-time)

Jordan Gillard’s LinkedIn profile already is garnering some attention — even though he’s just starting his second semester of Virginia Tech’s new Master of Engineering program in computer science.

That’s because the skills that Gillard is learning are in high demand among technology companies around the world.

The university’s Master of Engineering in computer science, the first new degree offered through the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, prepares students to move right into the workforce by focusing on practical skills instead of research. 

It’s the reason Gillard was drawn to apply to Virginia Tech. 

Gillard taught himself computer coding in an online bootcamp. Though he majored in geology as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, he had always tinkered with computers and software programs in high school and college. 

After working as a software engineer for a point-of-sale company in Germany for two years, Gillard decided he wanted to go to graduate school for more official and in-depth software development training. Gillard moved back to his home, Chicago, and began taking Virginia Tech classes full time online this past fall, with a concentration in software engineering.

So far, he said his courses have been challenging, but extremely useful.

“The knowledge I’m getting now, I don't know if I would have acquired it on my own,” Gillard said. “You really need these super intelligent professors to direct you. They really direct you well. They are showing me things that I needed to learn that I didn’t know I needed to learn.”

Once he graduates, Gillard said he hopes to continue to work in software engineering, but with a focus on development operations.

“I don’t want to be a professor, and I don’t intend to get a PhD,” he said. “I want to have knowledge and a really good understanding of these principles and go back into the industry. After this program I will have a much deeper and better understanding, and it will help my career trajectory be even better.”

He said he’s looking forward to the opportunities.

“I feel like I can go anywhere,” Gillard said.

Irith Sharma earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from Virginia Tech in May 2020, and moved right into the university’s new Master of Engineering in computer science program. Photo courtesy of Irith Sharma.
Irith Sharma earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from Virginia Tech in May 2020, and moved right into the university’s new Master of Engineering in computer science program. Photo courtesy of Irith Sharma.

Irith Sharma: Ready to jump into the tech industry

Undergraduate degree: Mechanical engineering/computer science, Virginia Tech

Innovation Campus program: Master of Engineering in computer science (full-time)  

Irith Sharma already was a Hokie. Why not keep going?

Sharma earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from Virginia Tech in May 2020 and decided to move right into the university’s new Master of Engineering in computer science program. He wanted to dive deeper into computer science, an area in which he has been interested since high school when he wrote computer programs for fun and tinkered with coding.

As an undergraduate, he double majored in mechanical engineering and computer science.

“It was kind of a hobby up to that point,” Sharma said. “It’s something I love doing. I turned my hobby into a major and a [future] career.”

He was attracted to the approximately one-year master’s degree program, because earning a Ph.D. would require at least several more years in school. Sharma enrolled in Virginia Tech’s 4+1 accelerated B.S./M.S. program and earned a Virginia Tech Talent Scholarship for his graduate program.

His goal is to learn skills that will equip him for a job in computer science.

“I felt I hadn’t done enough learning” in undergraduate, said Sharma, who described the transition from Virginia Tech undergraduate to graduate student as seamless. "I’ll come out with more of the focused learning that I wanted, and it’ll be through the same university.”

As a full-time graduate student, Sharma is concentrating in computer security and taking courses virtually from his Blacksburg apartment. He expects to graduate this spring.

He said he has considered earning a Ph.D. in the future, but “as of right now, I’m ready to jump into the industry.”

To learn more about the new Master of Engineering in computer science program, join a virtual information session.

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone