Students, faculty remember Cathy Pieronek
Last Thursday, Catherine “Cathy” Pieronek, an associate dean in the College of Engineering and the director of the women’s engineering program, passed away suddenly at the age of 52.
According to College of Engineering Dean Peter Kilpatrick, Pieronek proved to be a champion of the women engineers on Notre Dame’s campus, but also on a national level. Students have recalled her dedication to the engineers and also to the school as a campus leader who sought to continually improve the University and, specifically, the College of Engineering.
In an email, Kilpatrick described one of Pieronek’s large contributions to the women’s engineering program that dealt with residence halls. When Pieronek joined the engineering faculty in 2002, female enrollment in the college was lower than it was now, and each women’s residence hall only had “one to two” engineers living in it.
“This meant that women who wanted to study with their classmates and other engineers would have to go to another residence hall (often a male residence hall) and when the parietals require women students leaving male dorms at midnight (despite whether the homework or studying was all finished), this placed a hardship on the women engineering students,” he said.
“So Cathy, in concert with others in the College, got [the Office of Residence Life] to start clustering women engineers in fewer dorms so women could develop natural study partners in their own residence hall. This strategy, and many others, has led to a dramatic increase in both the retention and the numbers and percentages of women in engineering here at Notre Dame. We are now well over 30 percent, a remarkable increase in the last 10-plus years. Cathy played by far the dominant role in this transformation.”
Kilpatrick and others recalled her tendency to be extremely direct with students in her role as an advisor.
“I have so many memories of Cathy, but perhaps my favorite memory was when I shared with her recently how grateful a parent was for the direct and forceful advice that Cathy gave his son on the occasion of struggling academically and disciplinarily and the way the young man had been able to turn things around with Cathy’s support and encouragement,” he said. “Cathy gave me a simple ‘aw, shucks’ response and immediately deflected the accolade.
“This was classic Cathy. She did what she did for our students because she was deeply committed and cared about them as persons. In this regard, Cathy taught us how to be fully human and fully Christian.”
Senior Cecilia Ruiz said she met Pieronek when she was a first-year engineering student and member of the First Year Engineering Council.
“What I remember the most is her passion to education and her devotion to her students,” Ruiz said in an email. “She touched many lives with her advice and picked up many of us who struggled through some of our semesters.
“Always understanding, but firm, she encouraged me to continue in my endeavors and challenged all whose lives she touched to be the best version of themselves. I can’t think of a better role model to follow as an aspiring female aerospace engineer, and I am grateful for her presence in my life.”
Senior Maggie Miller said her relationship with Pieronek began during her freshman year. She said Pieronek took an interest in her summer job with Notre Dame’s Introduction to Engineering Program and talked to her frequently throughout the summer.
“Most of the conversations we would have were about how we could make the College better, how we could improve the perception of engineers on campus,” Miller said in an email. “This was especially pertinent to me as I have been heavily involved with various performing arts groups during my time at Notre Dame, and Cathy always took a surprising interest in this and in other students that were leaving their mark on campus in areas other than engineering. She wanted us to feel like we were students and to get away from seeing ourselves as nerds who could only sit in their rooms and study.
“She fought relentlessly for the students in the College, and even though she was often very hard on struggling students they were always better for it. Tough love was definitely her approach, but it was in fact a deep love that she showed the students.”
Miller said Pieronek was especially important for the women of the College, which she witnessed firsthand as a student representative on the College of Engineering Council.
“I remember in one meeting looking around and realizing that Cathy and myself were the only women in the room of 20 or so other people, and Cathy always played a large role in running those meetings,” Miller said. “She became someone I very much wanted to emulate in her confidence and in her caring.”
Senior Ryan Griffin said Pieronek cared about all her students in the College of Engineering, which led to a tough but rewarding mentoring style.
“She expected you to own up to your mistakes and act like an adult,” Griffin said in an email. “But if you were capable of doing that, Cathy would match you every step of the way working with you, teachers, the department, advisors, you name it, in order to help you succeed. She was also an incredible mentor to the students who got close to her.
“Those of us who were lucky enough to call her a mentor will forever treasure the advice she gave us and carry her words with us in our careers.”