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Get to know Dean Aimee Surprenant

Dean Aimee Surprenant smiling against a background of trees
October 28, 2021 – Aimée Surprenant, dean of Virginia Tech’s Graduate School. (Photo by Christina Franusich/Virginia Tech).

There was no question in Aimée Surprenant’s mind that she was going to attend graduate school after earning her bachelor’s degree. Now the dean of the Graduate School at Virginia Tech, the Maryland native grew up in a family committed to education and both of her parents earned doctoral degrees.

“I loved my parents’ life, the flexibility of being a professor,” she said. “Not that they didn’t work hard, but they worked on what they wanted to.”

During September 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Surprenant moved to Blacksburg with her husband, psychology professor Ian Neath, from Newfoundland, Canada, where she was Dean of Graduate Studies at Memorial University in St. John’s. She also was a professor in the psychology department there, specializing in research focused on human memory.

Surprenant spent the fall 2021 semester meeting administrators, deans, faculty, and students, as well as teaching the Graduate School’s Contemporary Pedagogy class, and adjusting with the rest of the university to being on a campus after spending much of 2020 working virtually.

She has a strong affinity for graduate education and students and recognizes the challenge of balancing research, classes, teaching, and home life. She witnessed to her mother’s determination to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees while raising four children.

Her mother would read her English literature homework to her four children as bedtime stories.  “We were very well educated as young children before we even got to school,” said Surprenant, noting she was the third of the four children and the only daughter.

Surprenant said she still marvels at her parents’ decision to earn doctoral degrees while raising their children. “I can’t quite understand, looking back, how two parents with four children would even agree to do Ph.D.s at all, but to both be doing them at the same time is kind of crazy. But they both seemed to be able to balance it and juggle it.”

Suprenant earned hear bachelor’s degree in psychology at New York University, and discovered she loved research. She earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at Yale University and did postgraduate work at Indiana University. Her field is cognitive psychology and her primary interest is in human memory. Following the lead of her graduate supervisor, she explores memory as a process, and has been working to show similarities between how we remember things on the short term and the long term in various so-called memory systems, and is particularly interested in auditory memory and how sounds are represented in memory.

As she and Neath, pursued jobs, they found that institutions considered him the primary applicant, and Surprenant as a spousal hire, despite her strong CV. “There was always a vibe of, ‘we’ll take your husband, but not you, even though she had a large NIH grant.’” Memorial University in Newfoundland was different. “The ad said explicitly, if you have a spouse, send their CV along. We really love to hire couples.” They were hired on their merits by Memorial, which boasted a student population of 18,000 students, including 4,000 graduate students.

It was there that Surprenant became involved in administration, and with graduate education especially. She served as interim associate dean of science, then became dean of graduate studies. The COVID-19 pandemic occurred during her tenure as dean.

“COVID was an eye-opener for everyone,” she said. “It made me realize the importance of clear communication.” In the first several months of the pandemic, she produced a video every weekday for the graduate community and posted it. She wanted to keep students aware that “their issues were constantly in focus.”

Surprenant said that sharing as much information as she had, and noting what she and the university administrators did not know, was “better than a black hole, because then you don’t know what is going on and you start making up a story.’ The videos helped build trust, she added. “One of the most stressful things is to not know. Even if the decision is something you don’t like, at least knowing that decision makes things less stressful.”

Suprenant said one of the key attractions to working at Virginia Tech was the transformative graduate education initiative established by former dean Karen DePauw. “That students have an opportunity to have a transformative experience is a key strength of Virginia Tech,” she said.

TGE offers students opportunities to explore a variety of pedagogies, research methodologies, and scholarly paradigms while completing their graduate degrees in their fields of study. It also encourages students to connect their scholarly activities with community service and enrich their understanding of scholarship and research as ethical pursuits. The Graduate School has encouraged interdisciplinary research and collaboration, and has provided professional development opportunities to explore a range of career possibilities, and activities to help students build networks. Surprenant said that was not the case when she was a graduate student.

“When I went to graduate school, the Graduate School didn’t do anything, really, except measure the margins on my thesis. There was no professional development. Students relied very much on their supervisors and teams to guide them through our choices in our careers,” she said.

She believes that graduate school should be a place where students are educated not just in terms of potential roles in academia, but more broadly, and about what options they might have for careers outside the academy. “It’s our obligation to students to give them the tools they need to be whatever successful is to them,” she said. “The Graduate School should be about helping students meet their goals.”

The Graduate School’s TGE-based programs “allow students the choices to be able to pick and choose those skills, those opportunities that are helpful to them. It’s not just a bunch of professional development things thrown together. It’s a strategy and it is targeting particular skills and competencies that have been shown to be really important for every profession.

Surprenant said she believes advocacy for graduate education is a strong part of her job, both within and beyond the university. “It’s important to be at all the tables across all the units,” she said. Advocacy includes working to keep the financial needs of students and graduate programs “front and center.”

She strongly supports the university’s inclusion and diversity aspirations and the Principles of Community. She had a great deal of experience working on diversity, equity, and inclusion at Memorial as Canada examined its history of racism directed at indigenous populations, which Surprenant said really was not taught in Canadian schools. A federal commission was tasked with examining the residential school system and “the history of that cultural erasure in Canada. The result was a truth and reconciliation report with recommendation to bring to light the truth of how indigenous peoples were treated in Canada and how to reconcile that with where we are now” she said. Acknowledging the original people associated with the land was one of the recommendations, and Surprenant has carried that with her to Virginia Tech.

“I’m hoping the land acknowledgment doesn’t just acknowledge the original people,” she said, noting that it also should “implicitly acknowledge that we are also visitors or new to this land, but that we also have a place here.”

She said land-grant universities have an implicit mission to encourage inclusion and diversity. “Land grants were meant to be more inclusive from the beginning, at least along the socio-economic lines,” she said, adding that the institutions still have a great deal of work to do to realize the goal of inclusion and equity.

Surprenant also encourages students to focus on their mental and physical health in addition to their education and research goals. She is a strong believer in work life balance and has studied ways to promote well-being and happiness. She tries to practice what she encourages students to do. She and Neath have two rescue beagles that they take for walks along the Huckleberry Trail. She enjoys travel and hiking, and often rides her bicycle to work. For escape, she said she likes to read, “really trashy novels.”

But what she likes most to do is shine a spotlight on graduate students and their work. She loves to promote stories of graduate students and is an active presence on Twitter. She also loves meeting graduate students and participated in several events during her first semester to do that. Surprenant plans to continue those activities during spring 2022 semester.