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Jessica Homyack and Tom Gorman say Virginia Tech's influence lingers in their lives

Tom Gorman and Jessica Homyack with their children, Violet and Leo on the beach at sunset
Tom Gorman and Jessica Homyack with their children, Violet and Leo

Jessica Homyack (PhD ’09), recently found herself on trip down memory lane. While searching for parental benefits for graduate students, she came across a photo of her daughter Violet, then an infant, in the arms of Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen P. DePauw. Jessica and her husband, Tom Gorman (PhD, ’09) were among the first graduate students to use the university’s work-life grant, providing six-weeks of paid leave for new parents. DePauw developed and implemented the program in partnership with the university’s colleges.

Now living in Chehalis, Washington, where Homyack works as a certified wildlife biologist for Weyerhaeuser Company and Gorman works with Washington state’s Department of Natural Resources, the two said their time at Virginia Tech influences many aspects of their lives.

“Both of us have woven diversity and inclusion into our professional lives and much of this really began with our time in Blacksburg,” Jessica said.

She was an AdvanceVT fellow and Tom was involved in the Graduate Student Assembly and the Commission on Graduate Studies and Policies. During the past 10 years, they have mentored high school students and been involved in diversity and inclusion groups in their work places and professional organizations. Homyack has developed conference panels and symposia focused on women and underrepresented groups in her field, and Gorman serves on his agency’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Council.

The two met while attending the University of Maine, where Homyack earned a master’s degree and Gorman completed a bachelor’s degree. They worked for a few years, and then decided to pursue doctoral degrees. They were offered assistantships in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and moved to Blacksburg.

In addition to their involvement in inclusion and diversity issues, they took courses in the Preparing the Future Professoriate certificate program. “Independently, we both found this program immensely transformative in a personal and professional way,” Homyack wrote. “The program gave us access to faculty, administrators and other graduate students in different colleges and programs that broadened our perspective of Virginia Tech and provided a diversity of backgrounds and opinions.”

“The program rounded out my academic experience to include a broader view of the world than my research or my academic discipline,” Gorman added.

Violet arrived on the scene during their final year of study. Homyack and Gorman said the time was exciting and terrifying as they juggled new parenthood and their academic work. The work-life grant provided important support and “allowed Jessica to focus on recovery and her newborn,” Gorman said.

The two said they traded shifts of writing dissertations and parenting little Violet, with assistance from babysitters and the support of their Ph.D. advisor. “It certainly wasn’t easy, and some of our chapters were written with a newborn on our laps, but it also gave us extra motivation and focus to defend and enter the job market,” Homyack said. Held by her grandparents, Violet watched her mother and father receive their hoods during graduation at Cassell Coliseum.

After graduation, they spent seven years in North Carolina, where their son Leo, who is now eight, was born. Three years ago, they moved to Chehalis, “a small town filled with generosity and giving spirits in Southwestern Washington.” They have recently worked with community residents and town leaders to develop the Penny Playground, an accessible, inclusive space for families. The aim is to have a place in which “people with all sorts of mobility disabilities can use the entire footprint.” The two said the experience has been wonderful.

Asked if they missed Blacksburg, the two wrote, “We will always have a special place in our hearts for the Appalachian Mountains. It’s been a while since we’ve been back, but who knows what will come up?”