ECU’s PIRATES engineering scholars program graduates first students

December’s commencement marked a milestone for East Carolina University engineering graduates Anthony Hill and Alex Ferro — more so than just the celebration of a tremendous accomplishment.

Hill and Ferro became the first to graduate from the PIRATES engineering scholars program, which is designed to support students from economically stressed areas who are pursuing undergraduate engineering degrees.

“To be honest, Alex and I had no idea we would be the first to graduate from the PIRATES engineering scholars program,” Hill said. “On the day of our ceremony, Dr. (Ricky) Castles revealed to us that we were the first ones to graduate from the program, turning it into one of the most significant moments of the day. I am deeply thankful to have been through this journey with the help of the program. I sincerely hope that our experience has paved the way for many others.”

Anthony Hill, left, and Alex Ferro both landed jobs after being the first to graduate from the PIRATES engineering scholars program in December. Hill is working for Duke Energy, while Ferro is working for Dewberry, a national planning, design and construction company. (Contributed photo)

The program — Providing Inclusive Residential And Transfer Experience Support in Engineering — started in 2020 through the Department of Engineering. It provides up to $10,000 annually in scholarships, while also supporting the students with added benefits such as tutoring, faculty mentoring, various social activities and integration into the engineering living learning community.

Funding comes from a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Program. It also supports students from three community college partners — Pitt Community College in Winterville, Lenoir Community College in Kinston and Wayne Community College in Goldsboro. Those students complete their first two years at their respective community colleges with the intention to transfer to ECU to complete their engineering degrees.

“I think it has been a blessing to be a part of the program,” said Ferro, who started at Wayne Community College and transferred to ECU. “It helped fulfill my goal of becoming an engineer and blossomed friendships that I would have otherwise never made. The biggest benefit is undoubtedly the friends I made along the way. The connections I made with the most brilliant and dedicated people I have ever met only pushes me to be better in what I do every day.”

Ferro, originally from Brownsville, Texas, received his bachelor’s in engineering with a concentration in electrical engineering. He’s working as an entry level electrical engineer with Dewberry, a nationwide planning, design and construction company.

Hill, originally from Sanford, received his bachelor’s in engineering with a concentration in electrical engineering. He’s working as a customer delivery engineer with Duke Energy.

“ECU has shaped my mindset into that of an engineer, instilling the importance of critical thinking and problem-solving through various labs and projects,” Hill said, adding that lessons in the engineering design process at ECU have paid off for him at Duke Energy. “… I enjoy seeing what we learned in the classroom make an appearance in the real world.”

Hill, a first-generation college student, said the scholarship he received through the program made attending college possible.

“I honestly do not know how I could have gone on without this support, so I am truly grateful for the program,” said Hill, who started at ECU in the fall of 2020. “I am sure my parents are happy too, relieving a huge financial burden on them.”

Along with the scholarship support, Ferro worked with the Center for Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering, helping support pollution prevention and green manufacturing initiatives that he said added immense value to his education.

“The ECU engineering program was one of the better decisions I have made for my education,” he said. “The diverse academic foundation of the program makes me confident in a number of areas that is imperative to working in a broad field like consulting engineering. The small class sizes allowed me to create a much deeper connection with the staff and receive advice straight from people that had worked in the industry for years prior. The professors I encountered during my time at ECU not only gave me a worthwhile education, but also taught me real life skills and gave me advice that will surely be beneficial to me in my career.”

Castles, associate professor of engineering, and Dr. Chris Venters, assistant professor of engineering, run the program that includes social gatherings and activities outside of class to help students relieve educational stress and enjoy time together. Hill and Ferro both noted that small class sizes in ECU’s engineering program allowed them to get to know their professors and their classmates, opening a path to relationships that will last a lifetime.

“I would just like to add my appreciation to the faculty at ECU for providing a great learning environment,” Hill said. “There are so many opportunities at this school to grow and find new interests, and I couldn’t have chosen better.”