When Brenda Morris left her teaching job in Cobb County and came to the Georgia Institute of Technology in August 1996, right after the Summer Olympics left town, she worked in the Center for Distance Learning.
“I have literally come full circle,” says Morris, corporate relations manager for the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, who is retiring Dec. 31st. “Because here we are 25 years later, back to distance learning.”
In 2020, a global pandemic has redefined the way a college education is delivered and acquired, and redefined Morris’s life. She lost both of her parents. She’s making a major life change, leaving a job she’s loved. But this year will remain clear in Morris’s hindsight for at least one other reason – she is the winner of this year’s College of Engineering Culture Champion Award at Georgia Tech, where Morris has worked in the BME department for the past three years, exemplifying her personal credo, “Propelling students to success one connection at a time.”
In his nomination letter for Morris, BME Associate Chair Paul Benkeser quoted an undergraduate student who said, “Every biomedical engineering student knows Brenda. They know her as someone who can help find opportunities for their careers, but many also know her as someone to go to when there’s nowhere else to go. For a student, Georgia Tech’s culture stems from the faculty and staff they meet … Taking our first steps into the adult world is much easier when there is someone to go to who can answer questions, guide us, and help us make sense of our new world. Brenda is that person for me and for countless other students.”
“It’s very humbling, and I absolutely love the idea that this the ‘Culture Award,’” says Morris, who has built her career at Tech around providing what she calls, “old school customer service. That means I’m going to help them night or day, during hours, after hours. It’s about prioritizing and responding quickly, making people feel welcome.”
When she sees a guest in the lobby of the Whitaker Building, BME’s headquarters on the Georgia Tech campus, Morris can quickly figure out if the person is lost and looking. “It’s like a Spidey sense,” Morris says, “knowing if something looks out of place.”
Since joining BME, Morris has worked consistently to develop initiatives to improve the department’s 1,200 undergraduate students’ professional skills. She’s engaged employers, faculty, and staff in the process, and has proven equally adept at communicating with each group. According to Benkeser, when Morris developed a professional development course as part of BME’s Galway Summer Abroad Program, “she needed to inspire more than 10 biomedical industry professionals, as well as eight BME faculty and staff to give up their time to assist her with the course. In the process she created a course that has become the glue that holds this program together.”
In her letter of support, BME Chair Susan Margulies wrote, “Brenda’s commitment to building community extends far outside her professional responsibilities,” and goes on to list some of Morris’s good works, including serving in the FASET Orientation program each year, helping to launch Georgia Tech’s ‘Girl Up’ organization, participating in different campus groups, such as Women in STEM and Project ENGAGES, among many other activities. “Brenda knows the value of building and maintaining relationships for the benefit of our students and the department as a whole,” Margulies wrote.
Perhaps the most meaningful support in the nomination process came from outside Georgia Tech. “Brenda builds trust by empowering others on her team to do the right thing and her incredibly successful expansion of the departmental career fair is a great example of the fact that she is highly team oriented and collaborative with her colleagues,” said Walt Baxter, a 1993 Tech graduate (mechanical engineering) and senior principal scientist for Meditronic, whose son is a current BME undergrad.
“Brenda works very long hours to make sure that the highly visible career fair is seamless to employers,” added Baxter, who served as chair of the Coulter Department’s industry advisory board for several years. “When congratulated afterwards, she replies by pulling in a nearby student volunteer to say, ‘thank you and we couldn’t have done it without our fabulous students!’ Such moments usually generate a handshake and a phone call to later connect with the student volunteer. [Brenda] is an incredibly humble servant leader of corporate relations and I greatly appreciate her contagious leadership style.”
With her well-earned retirement on the near horizon, Morris is looking forward to volunteering in her community, reading, taking long walks with her greyhound, and traveling. Not surprisingly, she says, “I plan to stay busy.”