Given her ancestry, it is no wonder Dr. Sarah A. Rajala is a pioneer among women. She is the granddaughter of William Lincoln Bakewell, the only American to take part in Ernest Shackleton's 1914 Antarctic expedition. And like her grandfather, Dr. Rajala is no stranger to "firsts."
In 1979 she became the first woman professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the first woman PhD faculty member in the College of Engineering at NC State.
In 1993 when she was appointed director of the Center for Advanced Computing and Communication, she became the first woman in the College to serve as a director of a research center.
In 1996 she was appointed associate dean of academic affairs, making her the first woman to hold any dean’s title in the College of Engineering.
In October 2002 she became the first woman to serve as associate dean of research and graduate programs in the College of Engineering.
As a woman in a male-dominated field, Dr. Rajala faced many challenges along the way. “I was the only woman in my class in electrical engineering at Michigan Technological University,” said Dr. Rajala. “In the early 1970s, women engineering students were not taken very seriously, and there was very little academic support for us.”
Her experiences as an engineering student have made her deeply committed to finding ways to encourage and support women students in engineering fields. Dr. Rajala believes that one way to build that support is through teamwork. “Something I carry with me is the value of teamwork and being able to make a contribution wherever I can,”said Dr. Rajala.
While in the Office of Academic Affairs, Dr. Rajala and her team worked aggressively to strengthen the College’s programs for women and minorities to encourage a diverse population of students. For their efforts, enrollments increased, and the College of Engineering received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.
Under her leadership, the Women in Engineering program was initiated, the College began partnering in the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, and the College’s K-12 programs were greatly expanded.
Dr. Rajala’s top priorities included not only increasing enrollment of students but recruiting the very best students. As a result, the College has experienced an increase in the quality of incoming students and a climb in enrollment that has moved the College back to target levels.
Dr. Rajala attributes much of the success in academic affairs to the faculty, the staff, and the students. Those who work with her know that much of the success also comes from Dr. Rajala herself — from someone with a penchant for leadership and a history of being the first to face new challenges.
Sarah Rajala is the mother of two teenaged girls and is involved in numerous school and community activities.