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Engineering professor thrives, first as student, under retiring dean's support, mentorship

May 13, 2024

Engineering professor thrives, first as student, under retiring dean's support, mentorship

Wendy Reffeor was at a crossroads. She was finishing her master’s degree and making plans to pursue a doctorate, specifically to teach. However, doubt about this plan crept in. Everywhere she turned, someone told her that there was no place she was going to teach with a doctoral degree in engineering mechanics.

The world these doubts built for her consisted of little more than writing grants, overseeing research without actually doing any of the research herself, and no teaching.

“I’m not going to go for a Ph.D. and go through all those years of school for that,” Reffeor, professor and chair of mechanical engineering, said about how she felt at the time. “I’m just going to be overseeing. That did not sound fun to me.”

Looking for hope, she called her old professor at GMI Engineering and Management Institute, Paul Plotkowski.

Plotkowski is the founding dean of the Padnos College of Engineering and Computing. He plans to retire at the end of May. When Reffeor called him asking if there was anywhere she could teach with a Ph.D., Plotkowski invited her to visit him at Grand Valley. He told her that if teaching with a Ph.D. is what she wanted, Reffeor could find that role at GVSU.

The next summer, Reffeor started working as an adjunct professor.

“She became my first grow-your-own faculty member here,” Plotkowski said. “Grow-your-own faculty is an approach I’ve been supporting for a long time because hiring faculty with industry experience who want to teach is a challenge.”

With Plotkowski’s support, Reffeor finished her Ph.D. and started full-time as a professor at GVSU on a tenure track. Reffeor recalled that this was not the first time Plotkowski was a major support for her.

Reffeor was pregnant during her junior year of undergraduate studies. As a student, she did not have much money, and her husband did not have a job that paid particularly well. Right after finding out about her pregnancy, Reffeor showed up in Plotkowski’s office in tears.

“There was a personal connection, even at that point,” she said. “He was the guy that I felt comfortable going to on the faculty.”

Plotkowski was there for her. He was a shoulder to cry on, and he listened to her worries and fears. More emotional trials came when Reffeor lost the baby, and Plotkowski continued to be there for her.

Reffeor lost the baby the Thursday before her final exams, and she had to call her professors and tell them that she would not be able to take them. All but one of her professors were understanding. One professor wanted medical documentation in order to excuse Reffeor from the exam. It was here when Plotkowski stepped in again.

“We had to have a conversation from me, a very junior faculty member, to them, a very senior faculty member,” Plotkowski said. “I tactfully said that demanding medical documentation at a time when a woman is going through what she is going through is not a terribly appropriate thing to do.”

Until recently, Reffeor had no idea Plotkowski had that conversation with the professor. For Plotkowski, that conversation was just doing the right thing.

When Reffeor joined GVSU’s faculty, her relationship with Plotkowski transformed from one of mentor and mentee to one of dean and professor. She said Plotkowski remained approachable in either role, and he was able to identify which role was appropriate for their conversations. Their relationship is one that she cherishes.

“He’s been a father figure, he’s been my mentor, he’s been my friend. He’s probably one of the most important people in my life, whether he realizes it or not,” she said.

Written by: Thomas Chavez

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Page last modified May 13, 2024