A passion for learning and advancement is at the forefront of Karlene Hoo’s philosophy, both personally and in her career.
Hoo, the first female dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Gonzaga, found her way to engineering partially because of her father, who is a mathematician. She also said she found a natural ability for chemistry and physics.
“I went to a very technical high school, so the thought was that I was always going to go to college and engineering seemed to be the converging point of pure mathematics and pure science,” Hoo said.
She went on to get her undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and then both her master's and doctorate from the University of Notre Dame.
“U Penn is an Ivy League school, so their idea of education was broader than engineering,” Hoo said. “I think it was one of the best decisions I ever made because I went to a school that didn’t focus on one thing. That Ivy League education and the co-op experience at engineering firms really affirmed that if I was really going to make an impact on the world I probably needed some more education.”
She then went onto Notre Dame, which she said felt like a natural step in her journey.
“I think I wanted to be sure I remained humble and Notre Dame taught me well, and being a Catholic university they also taught me humility,” Hoo said.
Hoo has made stops at three universities before, and each played an integral part in developing her as an educator.
As a graduate student, Hoo taught at Notre Dame, and she said she was not good at it.
“I was very theoretically equipped but practically I needed the experience in the industry so I could say ‘OK this is what it’s like when students go out and get jobs,’” Hoo said. “I think practicing your profession before going back into the classroom and educating the students made a big difference for me.”
In the beginning she was on track to be a professor doing research and teaching. It wasn’t until a colleague of hers came up to her and said she had the capability to set a different tone and style working as a dean.
She began her professional work in academia at the University of South Carolina.
“We were challenged with giving students enough grounding because they may not have had the necessary base knowledge coming in to really retain engineering students,” Hoo said.
From South Carolina, she moved to Texas Tech University where she worked for 14 years. While there she served the majority of her professorships and dean positions.
Hoo took these positions because she wanted to understand how a successful research portfolio is created and how to effectively mentor.
“Then I wanted to look at it from a student’s point of view like how does a student grow from being a freshman to sophomore, to junior, to senior and looking at if they would be interested in graduate school or their first job," Hoo said. "I wanted to know what that path looked like and what influenced a student to go down that path.”
Hoo then decided to move north and work at Montana State University as the dean of The Graduate School.
Her decision to move back to the undergraduate level was based in her desire to work directly with faculty and students.
It was this natural curiosity and genuine passion for mentoring and growth that led her to GU.
“She was energetic, very knowledgeable of the field, as one would expect, but also very accomplished and the other thing that struck me personally was that her answers were very thoughtful,” said Massimo Capobianchi, professor and chair of mechanical engineering, who served on the search committee for the new dean.
Hoo was drawn to GU because of its holistic approach to education, which aligns with her own education at the undergraduate and graduate level.
“When I looked closer at Gonzaga they had already developed the core and I knew that the engineering students would need to be grounded in other things and I believe that additional dimension is what the future really holds for humanity,” Hoo said.
She has big plans for the school and hopes to see it grow and flourish in the coming years by expanding programs, research and community outreach.
“I think the long-term goal for this school is to offer a quality education,” Hoo said. “We need to pay attention to the workforce needs, global issues and we want to be an integral part of the Gonzaga that pays attention to other institutional projects.”
Expanding research to cross disciplines is also a priority for Hoo, such as partnering with the Gonzaga-University of Washington Regional Health Partnership and the College of Arts and Sciences.
“She’s mentioned multiple times that she wants the school to be about student success and faculty success. I think both in the short and long term we’re going to see a direction that’s going to emphasize graduate participation in research, a broader scope of research in terms of applied and fundamental engineering," Capobianchi said. "I think you’re going to see a school that increases in quality and as the quality increases the degree will be worth more for the students and the experience will be more worthwhile.”
Hoo said she is service oriented, and her biggest goal is to create possibilities and pathways for everyone in the college.
“I hope that at the end of the day, our students feel as though the Gonzaga mission, philosophy, religion, writing and communication, as well as engineering and computer science has equipped them to navigate an entire career, not just tomorrow, but over an entire career,” Hoo said.
The idea of constant growth and learning among the students, faculty and staff is a priority for Hoo personally as well.
“I’m always curious, and I’m doing different things by myself rather than having someone explain their experience to me,” Hoo said. “I can say I went and did this experience because I needed to know by doing. I think that’s what’s interesting about what engineers do, we learn by doing.”