Virginia Tech Black Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Sharnnia Artis

Headshot for Sharnnia Artis


Dr. Sharnnia Artis, a triple Hokie, and diversity advocate currently serves as the Assistant Dean of Access and Inclusion in the School of Engineering and School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She hails from Chesapeake, VA and graduated with a bachelor, masters, and doctorate degree in Industrial Systems Engineering! While at Virginia Tech she was the President of several student clubs – NAACP, Theta Phi Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority, Inc., and National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). She was also named VT Graduate Woman of the Year, NSBE Graduate Student of the Year, and most recently VT College of Engineering Young Alumni of the Year.

Dr. Artis continued her engineering career in numerous higher education roles and can also add author as a list of accomplishments. I spoke with Dr. Artis about her roles in STEM and why she is attending the 2016 Virginia Tech Black Alumni Reunion.

What year did you graduate and what was your major?

I graduated with three degrees in Industrial Systems Engineering from Virginia Tech. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in in 2002, Master’s degree in 2005, and Doctorate in 2007.

Tell me about your time at Virginia Tech and what inspired you to attend?

I came to Virginia Tech for an engineering degree. When I was in high school, I participated in a summer program called C-Tech2. C-Tech2 was focused on introducing computing and engineering disciplines to girls. It was an all-girls camp with about 20 of us from high schools across Virginia. We spent about three weeks on campus. It was a lot of fun. I really fell in love with the campus. I fell in love with different opportunities that revolved around technology and engineering. The people were great. Dr. Bevlee Watford was the Director of the Program at the time. She was so inspiring. She was also a Virginia Tech graduate. Meeting her kind of sealed the deal for coming to Virginia Tech.

You talked about Bevlee Watford being influential in your time, can you talk about how she inspired you?

She was responsible for creating many of the student support programs for engineering students, especially programs to help students of color and women in engineering. I participated in many of those programs. I was in a mentoring program that paired me with an upper-class student. My mentor Lynette helped me establish myself as a student leader and stay on course as a scholar. There was also tutoring services that she was instrumental in establishing for the College of Engineering. I don’t think I could have been a strong student without the student support programs her office provided.

In 2016 we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of black women who entered Virginia Tech. Would you say Bevlee was one of the most influential black women for you at VT?

I’ve had quite a few black women at Virginia Tech who were instrumental to me – Dr. Bevlee Watford, Dr. Glenda Scales, Dr. Karen Sanders, and Dr. Tonya Smith-Jackson. Dr. Watford is definitely one of the most influential because I met her when I was a teenager and I still keep in touch with her this day. If I ever need anything, she is someone that I can call on to help me.

You mentioned Bevlee Watford being influential in your career. Can you talk about your professional role now and what you do?

Currently, I am the Assistant Dean of Access and Inclusion for the School of Engineering and School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California Irvine. I am responsible for recruiting diverse talent to computing and engineering and making sure they graduate and earn degrees in these exciting fields. In my professional role, I create opportunities to introduce students from diverse backgrounds to technology, computing, and engineering. My office provides students tools and resources to be successful. We have programs to help them be competitive in the workplace. I really feel like life has come full circle for me because all of the programs that I took advantage of as a college student are very similar to the programs that I offer for computing and engineering students at my university. I am probably what Dr. Watford was for me to students at UC Irvine. I think she was in an Assistant Dean role when I was an undergraduate. This is the same position that I am in today. It is pretty awesome to see how God works and how life is orchestrated. Everything comes together pretty well. It is a blessing to doing what I love to do. I am doing what I have been doing since I have been in school. Even as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech I was a mentor. I was a tutor. I always wanted to give back and help students and now I do it full time in my career. I get to help in so many ways. I create programs to provide access to students from under-resourced backgrounds who want to go to college. I work to close the achievement gap when it comes to preparing students for engineering and computing careers. To serve and help others is an awesome opportunity.

What was your journey after getting your PHD at Virginia Tech?

When I finished my Ph.D., I worked in industry as an engineer. I was an industrial engineer and a project manager for about four years and then I decided to go into academia. In my professional career as an engineer, I designed training systems and online software for large complex military systems. I really liked that my skills related to designing and training were easily transferrable to higher education. I did postdoctoral researcher at The Ohio State University in the Engineering Education Innovation Center to use some of the knowledge I learned in industry in an educational setting. After Ohio State, I moved to the Bay Area in California for a position at UC Berkeley. At UC Berkeley, I was the Director of Education and Outreach for the Center for Energy Efficient Electronic Science. My focus was helping students learn more reducing energy in electronic devices. Now I am in Southern California. I have been at UC Irvine for a year. I have a similar role to my position at UC Berkeley. The major difference is that my responsibility has expanded. Instead of being in charge of a department’s diversity efforts, I am responsible for diversity initiatives for two schools which equates to 8 departments at UCI.

You’re giving back in a major way, when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Especially in the STEM areas where numbers are very low. What would you say to other black alumni who are engineering graduates? What is the best way to give back?

Everyone can give back. In order to increase the number of students in the STEM areas, everyone needs to be engaged and there’s a place for everyone to get involved. Alumni can give back by donating funds for scholarships. We can be a mentor to students currently in engineering that need that extra motivation or additional insight about career paths. We can also be a mentor to aspiring STEM students in middle school and high school. It can be as simple as talking about what engineers do. There is a role for everyone. Whether it’s being a mentor, role model, contributing financially, or giving a student an internship or job shadowing opportunity. I think we are at a point where we can no longer do nothing. I think if everyone did something, even if it’s small contribution, we can make more progress.

What would you say is a career highlight for you?

I have so many career highlights. I feel like every career opportunity keeps getting better and better. My role today at UC Irvine is definitely a career highlight. Being able to open doors for more students to pursue a career in computing and technology is a dream come true. Anytime I can help people and break down barriers is a career highlight. To be able to lead our university efforts to cultivate diverse and inclusive environment in computing and engineering is a highlight because it is such an important need in technical fields globally. It’s pretty exciting trying to solve this challenging problem. I am hoping to design a systematic approach at UCI to bring together faculty, students, parents, industry, research labs, non-profits, community groups, entrepreneurs, etc. to create programs and policies that yield positive and sustainable results.

What are one of your memorable moments at Virginia Tech?

This is a hard question. I was at Virginia Tech for a long time, so I have many memorable moments – amazing friends, extraordinary leadership opportunities, and HOKIE football! I think my most memorable moment was in 2003 when Virginia Tech reinstated its affirmative action policy. This was the year that Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors voted to dismantle affirmative action, which provides admission, hiring, and scholarship policies that provide equal access to education for those groups that have been historically excluded or underrepresented, such as people of color and women. During this time, I was a member of the VT Chapter of NAACP and we brought together many students, faculty, and staff to protest the decision. We protested for weeks on campus. Over 200 of us marched together campus and our voice was heard. The Board of Directors had a special meeting to vote again and they reversed their decision. That moment changed my life. It was a true demonstration of the power of coming together to take a stance for equality.

What do you say to black students who are on the fence about coming back due to experiences like this? About why they should attend.

This reunion is a celebration our greatness! We are celebrating the first class of black women. This is part of our history. Alumni should come to reconnect with old friends, meet current students, and see how much progress has been made over the years. Students should come to network with our distinguished alumni. These connections could lead to job opportunities, mentorship, and life-long friendships. We are HOKIE STRONG! We need to see each other. We need to celebrate each other. We need to help each other. The Black Alumni Reunion is a great place to start! Join us! Make it happen!

Why are you attending the black alumni reunion?

I am looking forward to seeing old friends, faculty, and staff. It is nice to keep up with everyone on Facebook, but even better to see them in person. I’m excited to see our beautiful campus and all of the new buildings. I really love our Hokie Stone! And I cannot wait to meet current Hokies and attend the Spring Game. This will be the first Spring Game for Coach Justin Fuente. I am happy to be part of history!


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