Valerie Rafalko - Electrical and Computer Engineering

Valerie Rafalko

Valerie Rafalko was weaned on engineering. Her father was an electrical technician who worked for Bell Labs, AT&T and Lucent, and her grandfather was an electrical engineer for RCA.

“I gained an interest in engineering from seeing my father's work and listening to him talk about his jobs when I was in high school,” she says.

After high school – Valerie grew up in Fords, N.J. and attended Woodbridge High – she enrolled at NJIT. She soon excelled in her major: electrical engineering. She loved it and studied as long and hard as she could.

Now, fours years later, the Newark College of Engineering (NCE) has granted her with one of its highest honors: She was named the NCE Outstanding Female Engineering Student. Each year NCE gives the honor, called the Madame Mau award, to an undergraduate engineering student – a woman – who has contributed to the university on manifold fronts: academic, research and leadership.

“I was so excited to find out that I won the award,” said Valerie. “It gave me a great feeling of accomplishment after all the hard work I have done.”

The manifestations of her hard work are many. She has a 3.8 grade-point-average; makes perennial appearances on the dean’s list; and won an NJIT Freshman of the Year Award. She is a Student Ambassador for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department (ECE) and a women’s advisory board member for ECE. She also belongs to three honor societies. She also has a minor in management.

For her senior project, Valerie is doing robot-assisted DNA research. She is helping Professor Tim Chang analyze DNA data that are generated by a computerized dispenser. Chang has designed a robotic technique that places genetic material onto slides. Hospitals will soon use the technique to diagnose diseases. Chang, one of the university’s leading teachers and researchers, only selects top students to work on his National Science Foundation supported research, and Valerie is one of them. 

She also works as an assistant at NJIT’s Women’s Center, where she co-ordinates an overnight program for high school girls who’ve been accepted to NJIT. Valerie helps the girls find female mentors at NJIT. She is a resident assistance in her dormitory, which has a floor reserved for students of electrical and computer engineering. She lived on that floor when she was a freshman and says it’s been the key to her academic success.

“Living on the electrical and computer engineering floor is what helped me be so successful here,” says Valerie. “I joined a study group on the floor as a freshman and, to this day, I still study with the same group.”

During her junior year, she became a resident assistant and a coordinator on the ECE floor. Resident assistants build community in the dorms while also enforcing university policies. As a floor coordinator, she helps students form study group and plans social events.

It’s also her job to help female students.

“I love to help the girls in engineering,” said Valerie. “I’m here to support the girls and help them to stay with electrical or computer engineering. It’s a great feeling to give them guidance. NJIT is getting more women in engineering and it's great that NJIT has the Murray Center for Women in Technology, which supports women students.”

Valerie is also a student ambassador, which means she visits her old high school and tells students, especially the girls, about the joys and rigors of studying engineering.

“I especially like talking to the girls, who sometime are not aware of how great it is to study engineering,” she says.

Valerie is a senior who will graduate in December. But her career is already in motion. She has worked two internships at NJ Transit, designing and drafting circuits that control the train relays. This summer, she will intern at Anheuser-Busch, in Newark. She’ll first learn the technical aspects of the assembly line. But by summer’s end, her superiors expect her to run the assembly line herself.

After she graduates from NJIT, Valerie intends to either work as an electrical engineer or return to school for an MBA. Her future is bright; because her background is so strong.

“My parents went to trade schools, so I am a first-generation college student,” she says.

“They always encouraged me to do what I wanted, but my drive for success has come from within. I like to compete with the male students in my classes—that motivates me. But above all, I like the feeling of knowing that I accomplished all I could.”

(by Robert Florida, University Web Services)