The Frey Family on the steps of their home in New Hampshire

College Is a Team Sport

Karen Dzialo Frey ’82 (EE), ’85 MS (EE), ’91 PhD (EE) and her husband, Robert Daniel (Dan) Frey Jr. ’82 (EE), ’90 MS (EE) weren’t surprised when their son, Matthew ’22, chose WPI; he always was curious about how things operated. But they were especially delighted when their daughter, Natalie ’24, announced her interest.

It was Dan’s favorite uncle, C. Chapin Cutler ’37, who influenced his decision to study electrical engineering at WPI, as he often shared stories of working on radar development during WWII and his contributions to the Telstar satellite.

Currently an engineering fellow at BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H. Dan claims that it was the WPI Plan—with its emphasis on projects, teamwork, and presentation—that were key to his subsequent success in industry. “I fondly remember the challenge of the Comp [Competency Exam],” he says. “It provided an experience that closely matched the process of solving a problem, generating a report, and presenting the initial and final solutions.” A bonus of his education: Dan met Karen while they worked on the same IQP.

Karen says that the allure of the WPI Plan was also a considering factor. “When I was looking at schools in 1978, the Plan stood out as an innovative way to learn,” she says. Also, Sue Chapman, the women’s basketball and softball coach at the time, connected with the high school athlete during her admissions interview. With that outreach, a tour of the campus, and the small college feel, she says, “I was hooked!”

Currently program engineering manager/chief engineer at BAE Systems, Karen says her degree journey held more than a few challenges. One of the first was the male-dominated environment. “When I started in the fall of ’78, there were 13 male students for every female student,” she says. She recalls that varsity volleyball, basketball, and softball helped her connect with other young women at the time, as well as her Phi Sigma Sigma sisters. “The other big challenge was the Comp,” she admits. “I saw numerous sorority sisters of mine struggle with it, and I was no exception. I was elated when I finally passed.”

After a stint at Texas Instruments in Dallas, Karen felt the need to continue her education, and returned to WPI for her MS, as well as a teaching assistant position. “I enjoyed being a TA and the chance to work with some wonderful mentors, including EE professor Jim Demetry. After I finished, I decided I wanted to teach and stayed for my PhD.” That all transitioned when she discovered she was pregnant with Matthew, and instead she chose a career at BAE systems.

“Hearing about their WPI experiences helped me get a good picture of what WPI was all about, which I couldn’t quite get with the other colleges I was looking at.”

Matthew says despite COVID-19 concerns, remote learning has gone smoothly for him. “I enjoyed the transition because it allowed me to do things when I wanted, rather than relying on the preset schedule,” he explains. Now back on campus, he says so far it’s not much different than normal, “with the exception of my sister occasionally dropping by to make use of our kitchen.”

Natalie admits that her family was a big influence when choosing a college. “Hearing about their WPI experiences helped me get a good picture of what WPI was all about, which I couldn’t quite get with the other colleges I was looking at,” she says.

Even with her insider’s edge, she admits that going into her freshman year during a pandemic is a rather unusual experience, but that “WPI has been really good about sharing all the information and what they are planning with us—so that helps make the transition a little easier.”

Karen hopes her children inherit a few life lessons from their time at WPI, just as she has. “I learned a lot at WPI but the biggest lesson is that they really taught us how to learn—and that we never stop learning,” she says. “Another big one is working as a team. Whether it was the IQP, the MQP, or participating in athletics, a team can achieve more than the individuals alone.”

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