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Rays strive to bring students, STEM together through scholarship support

Jeff & Tiny Ray

Lauren Bryson (center), a freshman from Hayesville, is the first WCU student to benefit from an endowed scholarship fund established by Tina Ray (left) and Jeff Ray (right).

They lived parallel lives growing up. She worked on her bike and skateboard, liked math and generally wondered how things worked. He built and invented things, and tinkered with bikes and cars, fascinated all the while by the United States’ space race to the moon. 

They were engineers in the making whose lives eventually merged as undergraduate students at Tennessee Technological University, where she graduated with a degree in industrial engineering and he with undergraduate and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering. While she worked in the automotive industry, he earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering from Vanderbilt University with his eye on academia. She eventually earned her master of arts degree in teaching mathematics at Kennesaw State University.

Today, Jeff Ray – a first-generation college graduate – is the dean of Western Carolina University’s College of Engineering and Technology and Tina Ray is the eighth-grade math teacher at Cherokee Middle School in Cherokee who traded a 24/7 high-tech engineering life for a second career in K-12 education. Eager to bring WCU students and science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) subjects together, the Rays established the Hopkins and Ray Engineering and Technology Endowed Scholarship in June 2018. It is an amended version of their initial Hopkins and Ray FIRST Robotics Endowed Scholarship originally established in 2015 and named to honor their families; Tina’s dad, Thomas Edwin Hopkins, was a mechanical engineer.   

The expanded scholarship, made through a planned estate gift, is open to any WCU engineering or engineering technology student. “As educators and engineers, we wanted the opportunity to help students further their education and hopefully help change their lives,” Tina Ray said. “We’re blessed and want to give back.” The first recipient is Lauren Bryson, a freshman from Hayesville who is majoring in electrical engineering.

“The Rays are outstanding examples of what it means to “lead the way” by example,” said Lori Lewis, vice chancellor for advancement. “We are most fortunate to have both of them as role models for changing lives of students through their academic and philanthropic leadership.”

The Rays’ initial scholarship was created for students who had been involved in FIRST Robotics, a nonprofit organization that holds robotics competitions for K-12 students with innovative programs to motivate young people to pursue STEM education and career opportunities. But the Rays decided to change the fund once they realized their requirements were limiting to the WCU student engineering population. They also were moved by former Chancellor David O. Belcher’s and wife Susan’s commitment to WCU and “Lead the Way: A Campaign Inspired by the Belcher Years.”

“We decided to rewrite it and we endowed it a lot sooner than we thought we would,” Jeff Ray said. “Then we started looking down the road and wondered what would happen when we’re not here anymore and what would be a good use of our resources—that, coupled with the Belchers and the excitement that David Belcher brought to this campus.”

The Rays say their transition from industry engineers to educators was natural, their real-life experience a benefit to helping their students understand the subject matter. “My goal when I pursued my doctorate was to be in higher education,” said Jeff Ray, dean at WCU since 2014.  “It was my desire to have a positive impact on students in pursuing degrees in engineering and technology. I knew I wanted to help students when I entered graduate school for my master’s degree and began teaching a senior-level controls lab where most students struggled. After completing the controls lab a few months prior to receiving my mechanical engineering degree, I found a way, based on my industry experience, to make the subject understandable to others, and that’s where I got bitten by the teaching bug.”

It took Jeff Ray a few years of real-life experience as an apprentice—and future industrial journeyman—electrician out of high school working for the world’s largest commercial printer, R. R. Donnelley, to realize he wanted something more. The plant, in his hometown of Gallatin, Tennessee, printed LIFE Magazine and Modern Maturity, among other publications. It lured him in with a professional trade working in an engineering capacity. A few years in, Ray’s mentor, Leo Weber, a child survivor of World War II who was already beginning to show the wear and tear of the physically demanding job, pulled Ray aside and told him he was too smart to be “a lifer” and years of hard work takes a toll on your body. Ray agreed. “I worked every hour of overtime I could for more than a year, saved everything, paid off every one of my bills, and then I resigned and pursued an engineering degree full time.” He was 24 and ready for college.

Tina Ray was inspired by her father, a mechanical engineer, and encouraged by her mother and grandmother to be anything she wanted to be. “I can’t remember not wanting to be an engineer,” she said. “I did not know that girls were being stereotyped and not encouraged to pursue STEM fields until I got to college.” But she wasn’t discouraged and eventually decided on industrial engineering. She spent more than 16 years working logistics in the automotive industry for suppliers to Chrysler, Honda and Toyota. “I was responsible for purchasing, production, planning, shipping and customer service,” she said, “making sure you get everything in to the plant, get it built, shipped out to the customer and that the customer is happy.”

The couple moved from Tennessee to Ohio to Michigan to Georgia. The Rays initially became involved in FIRST Robotics programs in Michigan, serving in various roles. Tina Ray found her passion working and mentoring students in the various levels of FIRST Programs, which led her to pursue advanced studies in K-12 mathematics education.

The Rays are thrilled to provide scholarship support to WCU students, who, Jeff Ray said, convinced them to create their endowed scholarship. “I was on campus the first two and a half days of fall semester 2014,” he said. “I remember walking up to Starbucks – it was 7:45 in the morning – and seeing students coming down for classes, smiling, before an 8 o’clock class, making eye contact, saying ‘good morning’, how are you?’ I thought, ‘this is it, I’m in paradise.’”

To make a gift to the Lead the Way campaign supporting student scholarships, please visit here or call 828.227.7124.

Story by: Melanie Threlkeld McConnell

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