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Educational Partnership and Alumni Connections Draw Villanova Engineers to NAWCAD, Lakehurst

Kathleen Donnelly ’84 ChE, Executive Director
Kathleen Donnelly ’84 ChE, Executive Director

When Kathleen Donnelly graduated from Villanova University with her Chemical Engineering degree in 1984, she received several job offers in the South and Midwest. A native of Delaware County, PA, and a fan of the Jersey shore, she wasn’t interested in moving. A professor recommended Donnelly consider the Navy, specifically NAWCAD—the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division—in Lakehurst, NJ. She began her career with the organization as a general engineer intending to stay 3–5 years. More than 35 years later she serves as executive director responsible for Lakehurst’s 1,800 civilian personnel and budgets exceeding $1B. Their mission: to infuse modern technology across the entire spectrum of equipment needed to launch, land and maintain aircraft from ships at sea.

In conversation, it is evident that Donnelly is very proud to lead the organization where she says, “There’s something for everyone, whether it’s in science and technology, design, technical services or procurement.” She points to the many opportunities for job rotations that allow employees to find the right fit and notes the on-site master’s programs that make it easy to earn an advanced degree.

Promoting NAWCAD Lakehurst’s desirable work environment is one of the objectives of its robust educational outreach program, which begins with teaching local grammar school children about STEM and extends to universities where a Capstone Project Program Initiative allow seniors—and potential future employees—to see the organization’s exciting work firsthand. Villanova’s College of Engineering is one of seven universities in the tri-state region with an Educational Partnership Agreement with Lakehurst. The relationship began around 2010 and was renewed last year. Donnelly explains: “We provide partner universities with a list of potential student projects, each based on a real-world issue that offers a hands-on opportunity to improve the quality of life or work for the Navy or Marines.” Projects have involved modeling and simulation, aircraft catapult components, and arresting gear test equipment improvements. The range of projects and related engineering disciplines vary depending on the needs at the time. Today, demand is strong for those in computer science, cybersecurity and electrical engineering, though Donnelly points out that engineers of all disciplines are represented at Lakehurst.

The educational partnership has been enormously successful. “In the past decade, we’ve had more than 30 engineers come to us from Villanova,” says Donnelly. Personnel from different schools are celebrated annually with alumni photo days, which have turned into a friendly competition of sorts to show who has the most school spirit.

Alumni Connections

Executive Director Kathleen Donnelly presents Lab Director Christopher Thajudeen ’07 EE, ’13 PhD with an Innovator of the Year award.
Executive Director Kathleen Donnelly presents Lab Director Christopher Thajudeen ’07 EE, ’13 PhD with an Innovator of the Year award.

Among those with considerable alumni pride is Christopher Thajudeen ’07 EE, ’13 PhD. Thajudeen enjoyed his Villanova experience so much that he earned his engineering bachelor’s, master’s and PhD at the University. He even spent a year with the College as a post-doc before a NAWCAD open house led him to Lakehurst.

Thajudeen’s interest in working with the military had its roots in the Army-sponsored doctoral research he conducted on through-the-wall radar imaging in the College of Engineering. Working with advisors Drs. Ahmad Hoorfar and Moeness Amin, he was involved with the hardware and testing of antenna and radar design. That experience made him an attractive candidate for the Navy, and he quickly received a job offer. What convinced Thajudeen that it was the right opportunity were Lakehurst’s Villanova alumni, including executive director Donnelly. He explains, “It said a lot to me that people in leadership came from a similar ideological and academic background; it felt like a family.”

Today Thajudeen works for Lakehurst’s Science and Technology department, serving as director of a sensing and perception lab where he is involved with developing advanced sensing capabilities for naval applications. He has returned to Villanova for recruitment opportunities, and it is evident that promoting a career with NAWCAD is not a difficult sell for him. “It offers the largest breadth and width of experiences and opportunities that can be found in one location. In most industry jobs you have a niche, and you need to change jobs to get a new experience.” At NAWCAD, he says, there are opportunities in every aspect of engineering, as well as in management. Employees are encouraged to transfer between departments and continuing educational opportunities abound. He adds, “There are no walls between you and whatever you want to do.” When asked what he most enjoys about his work, Thajudeen refers to the “very capable, very interesting people from diverse backgrounds” and the opportunity to visit exciting places doing work that he loves and finds gratifying.

Emberle Pearson ’13 ME, Workforce Operations Supervisor
Emberle Pearson ’13 ME, Workforce Operations Supervisor

Emberle Pearson ’13 ME is another Villanova Engineering graduate who has found a home at NAWCAD Lakehurst. The recipient of an undergraduate SMART scholarship—a Department of Defense funded STEM educational program—Pearson was assigned to NAWCAD as a summer intern and worked on a senior capstone with the organization. She recalls, “My project was involved with finite element analysis to determine the safety of launch and recovery equipment.” Ultimately, she was hired as a mechanical engineer in NAWCAD’s Service Life Management Program, the group that sponsored that project. “It definitely shows the power of the partnership,” she says. “It was nice to not have to start at zero.”

In addition to her full-time position today as a workforce operations supervisor, Pearson involves herself in strategic initiatives, including leading a new workforce training and development program. She also spends considerable time volunteering with NAWCAD’s educational outreach, as well its diversity teams: “I enjoy reaching back and helping others whose shoes I have been in. I know I got where I am because lots of people reached out to me.” Pearson gives her time to her alma mater as well, serving for two years as a Career Compass mentor to Villanova Engineering undergraduates.

Equally happy with her employer as Thajudeen, Pearson says her very first internship with NAWCAD sealed the deal for her where a career was concerned. “I loved the work, I loved that it was meaningful, and I loved the organization’s mission.” She also appreciates Lakehurst’s focus on developing its people. “They hold your hand from the time you’re a new hire to the journeyman level. You know that there’s a progression and along the way there are different opportunities.” Perhaps what Pearson finds most appealing about the organization is its commitment to a work-life balance for employees, which she says, “Is huge to me as a woman, mother and wife. You might earn more in private industry, but this commitment to work-life balance and the sense of community are why people spend their entire careers here.”

As evidenced by employees like Pearson, Donnelly says: “The Villanova graduates who have participated in the capstone initiative are some of the best and brightest engineering minds entering the field. Those who continue to work with us after graduation have become valuable additions to the Fleet.