PIRATES scholars program works through pandemic’s challenges

Two Department of Engineering professors are credited with obtaining a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program.

The five-year grant program — Providing Inclusive Residential and Transfer Experience Scholarships (PIRATES) in Engineering — will help students who may not have otherwise been able to pursue a four-year degree in engineering.

Dr. Ricky Castles, left, and Dr. Chris Venters run the PIRATES engineering scholars program.

Dr. Ricky Castles, an associate professor, and Dr. Chris Venters, an assistant professor, have worked hard to recruit a number of PIRATES Scholars.

But that goal was not without challenges, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID-19 has certainly been a challenge to our scholarship program,” Castles said, “but we have pivoted in many ways and have done our best to continue to support our scholars.”

As the pandemic grew in the United States, the number of potential recruits dropped to 11 determined students by the time the fall 2020 semester began. When classes pivoted online, planned activities, tours and meetings became virtual or were canceled.

“All but one of our scholars moved home after courses switched online,” Castles said, “and with COVID restrictions, we were unable to gather in person or to engage as much with industry as we were hoping.”

Maggie Leland, from Buford, Georgia, is one of those students who enrolled despite the challenges. Choosing the biomedical concentration, she said she didn’t “grasp the magnitude” of the scholars program until she arrived on campus.

Maggie Leland plays on the ECU women’s soccer team and is also a PIRATES engineering scholar. (Contributed photo)

“Dr. Venters and Dr. Castles have provided extensive support, making sure my path to success was set from the beginning,” she said. “The professional connections the department faculty have within the engineering industry ensures that everyone within the program will have access to the resources we need to be successful in college and beyond.”

Leland said the scholarship provides her a chance to focus on her education without having to divide her time working at a job. She’s also able to be a member of the women’s soccer team and won’t have to worry about mounting student debt.

“There are no words to adequately express my gratitude for all that the PIRATES Scholar program is providing me,” she said.

The goal now for the program is to fill the 20 available scholarship spots for the upcoming fall semester. Those efforts will focus on students from high schools as well as from community colleges in Pitt, Lenoir and Wayne counties, providing opportunities for those who may not normally be able to afford an ECU education.

“Overall, I feel the program has been a success for the students who are already on scholarship, but we are hoping to get more students supported by scholarships,” Castles said. “Hopefully, as COVID restrictions lift, we will be able to do more face-to-face activities.”

— By Margaret Fisher