Louise Petruzzella credits MentorLinks – the program development initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) – with a recent $426,886 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and her leadership of three distinct high-tech programs at Shoreline Community College (Washington).
“If it weren’t for me being a mentee in MentorLinks, none of this would have happened. I know that’s true … [it] gave me the opportunity to build my career,” Petruzzella says.
Petruzzella was an adjunct construction technology instructor in 2014 when she became a MentorLinks mentee. She says lessons she learned during MentorLinks – especially the advice from her MentorLinks mentor Ken Walz – and connections to the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) community have elevated her professional endeavors. She is now director of biotechnology, clean energy technology and the TESLA Start program at Shoreline, in addition to serving as the principal investigator of the new NSF grant that will support a new hub for biomanufacturing technician education in cell therapy and immunotherapy.
“That introduction into MentorLinks, I think has made my entire career progression possible,” she says.
AACC is accepting proposals for its next cohort of MentorLinks colleges. The deadline is June 24.
MentorLinks aims to improve technician education programs in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields by providing faculty with mentoring, valuable networking contacts, rich opportunities for technical assistance and professional development. Applicants should be interested in working with an experienced community college mentor who has successfully planned and implemented a major change in a high-tech program.
Colleges chosen for MentorLinks receive $20,000 for the two-year grant period and travel support for their project director to attend two project meetings (in person, if permitted by public health authorities). The grant period runs from October 1, 2021, to November 30, 2023.
AACC has developed and refined MentorLinks with the support of NSF’s ATE program since 1999.
An evolving career path
“MentorLinks just opened a whole new world to me and an opportunity like no other,” Petruzzella says.
In fall 2014, when Petruzzella attended her first MentorLinks meeting, she was teaching in the construction technology program, from which she had graduated in the spring. She was a novice to STEM teaching, but not to higher education instruction. She had taught philosophy to undergraduates for 15 years before moving to Seattle. With the relocation she took a job in construction; she had worked her way through college using construction skills she learned in her father’s business.
To update her skills, Petruzzella enrolled in Shoreline’s construction technology program, and after graduating in 2014 she was offered a job teaching in the program.
Petruzzella says her MentorLinks mentor Ken Walz not only assisted with planning improvements to Shoreline’s construction technology program but showed her how to think bigger about STEM regional workforce needs.
Walz is a science, engineering and renewable energy instructor and principal investigator of the Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technological Education at Madison Area Technical College. He introduced Petruzzella to hundreds of people who informed her organization of technician education programs. When her ATE grant proposal for a clean energy technologist program received a $168,242 grant, Petruzzella says “it signaled to the college” her commitment and sparked more institutional support.
The success of the clean tech program led to her appointment as director of biotechnology. The well-established department has expanded during her leadership with the support of several federal grants. Petruzzella is excited about the newest ATE grant and how it will help the college and its regional and national education partners respond to the biopharmaceutical industry’s growing need for technicians with cell therapy and immunotherapy knowledge and skills.
The clean tech program also caught the attention of Tesla, and in 2018 the automaker placed one of its intensive certificate programs for electric vehicle technicians at Shoreline.
“We had an excellent automotive program with a number of manufacturers, but the kicker was we had a clean tech program as well,” Petruzzella explains.
Subject-matter experts as mentors
In 2019, Petruzzella became a MentorLinks mentor. It’s a role she recommends for faculty with expertise in advanced technology fields.
“As a mentee I was rewarded greatly for my participation. It continues to pay off. But I would say it was even more meaningful for me as a mentor,” she says, explaining that it was gratifying to advise faculty as they developed their programs.
She also found it to be a positive professional development experience during which she learned from mentees and other mentors.
“I think in light of the pandemic, it’s even more important to get involved,” she says. Despite the many challenges from Covid pandemic, Petruzzella notes it has been “a year of innovation” at community colleges.
“Some good things have been learned, and for a mentor to be able share that with a mentee college I think is going to be great, fantastic,” she says.