Helping Santa Clara Engineering Students Now—and Into the Future
By Tracy Seipel
Greenie ’71, M.S. ’78 and Don Van Buren ’70 bolster lifelong generosity to SCU with a $2.6M legacy gift.
Sofia Brumbaugh ’23 has never met Greenie Van Buren ’71, M.S. ’78 or husband Don ’70, but she’d like to thank them all the same.
Last year, Brumbaugh was among four Santa Clara undergrads selected for the first cohort of SCU’s Samiha Mourad Leadership Program. Partially funded by the Van Burens, the fellowship awards a handful of top electrical and computer engineering majors from traditionally under-represented groups on campus the chance to regularly meet with industry professionals about upcoming workplace and post-grad challenges. The program, held over two quarters, also helps them hone their communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills.
Like Greenie, Brumbaugh is an electrical engineering major who is passionate about her field and its foundations in math, logic, physics, and problem-solving. She also has a vision of how her specialty can create a more just and humane world. But halfway through her college studies, she wondered about the next steps in her journey. The fellowship helped point the way.
“Until that program, I was kind of floating around. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” says Brumbaugh, who identifies as Latina. After the fellowship paired her with two SCU electrical engineeriing students—one pursuing a master’s degree, the other a doctoral degree—and meeting with electrical and computer engineering Assistant Professor Maria Kyrarini, she found her purpose and direction.
“I had a few conversations with them about what I valued and where I felt most confident, and it was through those conversations that I found that graduate school was best for me,” says Brumbaugh, who will start a 10-month-long master’s program at Santa Clara this fall, focusing on control systems and research in microgrids. The Mourad program, she says, not only boosted her confidence, it reinforced her interest in green power and “doing some good, and benefiting people, with my degree,” she says.
That kind of impact is music to the ears of the Van Burens, whose generosity to SCU over the decades recently culminated in a $2.6 million Van Buren Family legacy gift that will enhance two areas of the engineering school’s academic mission.
The family’s endowed scholarship fund will provide two or more scholarships annually to qualifying undergraduate students with financial need who are majoring in science, engineering, or business. Their endowed innovation fund will provide annual support for the STEM disciplines at Santa Clara, helping to grow programs and purchase new technologies that will keep SCU up to date in innovative STEM education.
“We really believe in giving back,” says Don, whose mechanical engineering degree led to a long career with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. “We feel it’s important for students who need the money and the help. It can make a difference.”
A combination of fortuitous timing, hard work, and a strong Catholic faith has helped the Van Burens create that difference.
International college student
As a calculus-loving Catholic high school student from Hong Kong, Greenie was introduced to the idea of Santa Clara through her local Catholic center. She was intrigued by SCU’s engineering reputation, even though she knew pursuing a technical major would not be easy.
Yet Greenie succeeded, becoming the only woman in SCU’s graduating class of 1971 to earn a B.S. in electrical engineering. An opening posted in the University’s career services office for a “start-up” called Intel Corp. led her to a 17 year-long career at the chip-making giant, where she rose through the ranks from an integrated circuit test/product engineer to chip designer to product line manager. She went on to lead teams at Seeq Technology, then 3Com, and in 2003 opened her own consulting firm.
“I chose a major at the time that women weren’t supposed to go into,” says Greenie, the first woman in her family to earn a college degree in the U.S. She can still recall arriving in San Francisco, where three SCU students who belonged to the Santa Clara International Students Club were there to greet her.
It was also two weeks before school started, and the dorms were closed. To her great surprise, Santa Clara opened a room early for her. Soon after, Fr. Donald Duggan, SCU’s then-assistant librarian, gave Greenie a part-time job in the library, which would help pay her tuition over the next three years. In her senior year, Greenie found a part-time job with the Santa Clara Valley Water District through her SCU connections. “I didn’t think I would have been able to do any of that at other universities,” she recalls. “I felt very lucky.”
So did Don, who benefited from a modest federal-aid scholarship, and an ROTC stipend during his junior and senior years. By the time SCU lined him up with NASA’s Ames Research Center to work on his undergraduate thesis, he’d already noticed Greenie on campus. One fall day in 1969, while working with friends on a homecoming float, a few of Greenie’s engineering classmates introduced her to Don. The two of them clicked, and later continued a long-distance relationship during Don’s military service. In 1974, they took their wedding vows in the Mission Church.
“I facetiously say that the two poorest students at Santa Clara got married,” says Don. “Maybe not the poorest, but below the average income. And that’s part of the reason we like Santa Clara. We managed to work through all of that, and I think it’s because SCU was supportive to both of us.”
‘Think about others’
Santa Clara’s Jesuit tradition also informs their lives.
“I think the Jesuits challenge us to think about others,” says Don, a longtime volunteer at their local parish, where Greenie is involved in Bible studies. Their story, and Santa Clara’s integral place in it, are reflected in their endowments that are meant “to ensure that the future generations will have a chance of success, like we did,” says Greenie.
It’s among the reasons why the Van Burens take time to brag about Santa Clara, especially to their out-of-town visitors. The Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation includes a designated first floor area named after them, and every spring, the couple do their best to attend the engineering school’s annual Senior Design Conference.
It’s also where Brumbaugh plans to introduce herself to the couple, who will be able to watch her present a green energy project during the May 2023 event under the guidance of her advisor Maryam Khambaghi, who is an assistant professor in the electrical engineering department and director of the Latimer Energy Lab.
“I feel so lucky to be at a school that has alumni like the Van Burens, and people who are constantly supporting and offering these resources and opportunities to students,” says Brumbaugh, who hopes to work in sustainable energy for low-income populations.
“It was definitely a ‘gift’ that I received this fellowship, that paved my way and helped me figure out where I’m going.”
Dec 15, 2022
Electrical engineering major Sofia Brumbaugh ’23.