Program provides financial, academic support for engineering students

Oscar Maldonado grew up watching and later working on the big rigs in his father’s trucking company in Clinton.

His passion for trucks and cars grew — he’s the proud owner of a Dodge Charger — and he wants one day to own his own shop.

To that end, he came to East Carolina University to study mechanical engineering — something that would not have been possible without the PIRATES engineering scholars program.

“It’s a very big scholarship, and it just made school for my parents a lot easier because I didn’t have to worry that much about my financial situation,” Maldonado said.

The program — Providing Inclusive Residential And Transfer Experience Support in Engineering — started in the fall of 2020. The goal is to support low-income students pursuing undergraduate engineering degrees with up to $10,000 in scholarships annually. Funding comes from a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Program.

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The grant will provide scholarships to 80 students — half of those enrolling as freshmen at ECU and half from three community college partners — Pitt Community College in Winterville, Lenoir Community College in Kinston and Wayne Community College in Goldsboro. Those students will complete their first two years at their respective community colleges with the intention to transfer to ECU to complete their degrees.

Maldonado works in a class in the Science and Technology Building.

The program also offers support that includes tutoring, faculty mentoring, various social activities and integration into engineering living learning communities.

The son of Honduran immigrants, Maldonado was born in the United States and is the first in his family to attend an American university.

“My parents told me that it would be better to go to college and have that college experience,” Maldonado said. “I’ve always liked school and always liked learning. I always had good grades. I went to an early college and got out with my associate in science at 18.”

He said ECU’s spirit and quality engineering department got his attention as he considered college, with the PIRATES scholarship providing him the financial boost he needed to commit.

“I knew that I had to come here because of it,” Maldonado said. “By getting this scholarship, I realized that this school was trying to help me out, and I just had to take that chance, take the opportunity to come here.”

A Collegiate Family

Maggie Leland has three brothers, two of whom are in college and another in high school aiming for college. Her mother is also taking classes toward a master’s degree. She learned about the PIRATES engineering scholarship through the ECUAWard scholarship portal.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to apply,” she said.

Maggie Leland is a member of the ECU women’s soccer team and also a PIRATES engineering scholar.

As a goalkeeper with the ECU women’s soccer team, Leland was already receiving a partial scholarship through athletics, but as an out-of-state student from Buford, Georgia, the financial support she’s receiving through the PIRATES scholarship means a lot to a family with four college students and another on the way.

“A scholarship of that amount takes a lot off of you financially, and it’s a program that can provide such great resources,” Leland said.

Among those resources are weekly meetings with other PIRATES scholars and engineering professors Dr. Ricky Castles, the principal investigator of the grant, and Dr. Chris Venters, the co-principal investigator.

“I’ve made a bunch of new friends, and being able to speak with Dr. Castles and Dr. Venters, they always provide a sense of relief every week,” Leland said.

As part of the program, Leland receives faculty mentorship from Dr. Blair Weaver, teaching instructor in the Department of Engineering.

“Dr. Weaver is great,” Leland said. “She’s written a few recommendation letters for me already, and it’s great just to be able to talk to somebody. I can go to her if I need anything. Whether it’s academics or outside of academics, I know I can always rely on her.”

She said that’s especially important as she balances her academic schedule with her soccer schedule and personal life.

“It was definitely a lot at first. I have gotten into the habit of writing down every single thing I have to do on a calendar, and it has made things a lot easier,” she said.

Leland said science and math have always interested her, and engineering matches those two passions. She hopes to use that passion to design and work in prosthetics.

“It’s always been super interesting to me, and I think there’s a lot that can be advanced within prosthetics to benefit people,” she said.

A Conversation Starter

The idea for the scholarship program came to Castles as he talked with ECU students on campus.

“It doesn’t take long on ECU’s campus to have a conversation and find a student who’s really struggling financially or who’s not sure if they’re going to be able to pay for that next semester, who’s worried about that mounting student loan debt that they’re going to face as soon as they graduate,” Castles said.

Dr. Ricky Castles, associate professor in the Department of Engineering, is the principal investigator for the PIRATES engineering scholars program.

As a student at Virginia Tech, Castles received a scholarship as an undergraduate.

“I recognize what that opportunity did for me to be able to not have to work while I was going to school during the semester,” he said. “I was able to work and get technical experience during the summer months, but during the academic semester, I was able to focus 100% on studying and doing my job as a student. And that really helped me be very successful, and so part of my drive to mentor this program is to really make sure students have a similar opportunity to what I had when I was a student.”

It’s an opportunity that can change lives, he said.

“We think a lot of them will go on to fantastic careers that are really life-changing for their family,” Castles said. “Many of them are the first in their family to go to college, and engineering is a very lucrative career that really will benefit them very long term.”

That is, after all, why Castles teaches — to help students build successful lives. The PIRATES scholars program can be an important part of that success.

“My passion as an educator is really student success, and I don’t want there to be barriers such as financial reasons for students to not be able to pursue their dreams,” he said. “We are a state university and we ought to do everything we can to make sure that the people in this state can get the education that they deserve.”

Information on the PIRATES engineering scholars program is available online or by emailing Castles at

Leland makes a save during practice.