As a senior instructor of mechanical engineering in Oregon State University’s School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, Dr. Nancy Squires often had a line of students out her door during office hours.
Harjot Saran, a graduating senior in mechanical engineering, first met Squires during his freshman year. He had selected the aerospace option by accident, and initially didn’t see himself going that route. After attending his first lecture, Saran went into Squires’ office and asked what his options were.
“She just spent maybe 15 or 20 minutes running down the next four years, projects that I could be involved with, and then pushed me to go into ESRA—the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association,” Saran said. “I just immediately joined, and they were super nice. Dr. Squires was very helpful in just allowing me to find something that I wanted to be a part of, and that was one of the first things I can remember of her.”
Squires passed away on June 19, 2020. During her time at OSU, she was a revered instructor, advisor and mentor. She spearheaded OSU’s aerospace engineering program and was involved in various clubs, including OSU’s branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Harriet Nembhard, head of the OSU School of MIME, joined the university in 2016, and first met Squires during the interview process for her current position. Nembhard said from the start, Squires was an example of everything she fell in love with in the school. During their meeting slot, Squires brought a number of OSU students to meet with Nembhard.
“She brought six or eight of her AIAA students, and they brought me a little gift—a patch that they get every year, and a couple of trinkets about rocketry—and showed me what the club had been doing. And by the time I was done with the interview slot, I thought maybe I actually want to be on Nancy’s team,” Nembhard said. “That’s kind of how she always made you feel. I would see her in the parking lot after work, and many other times, and say, ‘when I grow up, Nancy, I want to be you.’”
In her position as school head, Nembhard said her role mostly involves giving and doing for others, but that Squires was one of few individuals who offered her help.
“In my whole time here, in four years, two people offered to explicitly help me who are on my faculty—how can I help you? What can I do for you?” Nembhard said. “And again, I’m not looking for that, I understand—but of course, Nancy was one of those people.”
David Blunck, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and associate school head for undergraduate programs, knew Squires for nearly seven years. Blunck said Squires will be remembered for her love and devotion to helping students and helping to establish student rocket programs and the aerospace minor at the university.
“She’s an example, a friend, and took a genuine interest in myself and my family,” Blunck said. “She’s helped tremendously with my research and what I try to do professionally. But I think first and foremost, she is an example.”
Blunck said Squires met with more students than any other faculty member he knows and was always willing to answer questions, professional or otherwise.
Amy Caldwell, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and past president of OSU’s AIAA, first met Dr. Squires as a senior in high school. Caldwell was on a campus tour at OSU and was in the process of deciding between aerospace programs at colleges like Purdue and Rensselaer. During the tour, she was not sold on attending OSU and was unaware that the university had an aerospace program until she noticed an Aerospace Engineering Lab on a campus map. After looking the program up online, she found Squires’ name.
“We asked the people at the tour office, ‘can we go find this woman?’ because we had some time in between our meetings. And they said ‘well, it’s the middle of midterms, and if she’s in her office—which she’s likely not going to be—she’s not going to talk to you,’” Caldwell said.
Caldwell and her father went to her office anyway, and found Squires there. Caldwell introduced herself as a prospective student and asked if she was willing to answer a few questions about the aerospace program.
“She spoke to us for an hour. 55 minutes of those she talked, five minutes we talked,” Caldwell said. “She was amazing both in her professionalism and her kindness, but also her truth...she told us about the program that she had been building since effectively 2013, the hidden diamond, basically. So as the story goes, we entered her office as Boilermakers, and we left as Beavers. That was my first interaction with her.”
David So, a graduating senior and incoming graduate student in mechanical engineering, first met Squires during his introductory classes freshman year.
“I took our program’s Intro to Aerospace Engineering class, which is the one that she teaches—AAE 210—and it was remarkable,” So said. “It was always really exciting to go into the class. She kept things super interesting—we had guest lecturers come in, we talked about a whole variety of things.”
As an instructor, So said Squires was supportive of her students—she knew what she was teaching was important, and wanted to make sure everyone understood the material.
“People always spoke very glowingly about her, and it’s because she did such a great job combining her passion for what she loves—both with engineering and aerospace—but also for students, and allowing those of the next generation to learn well,” So said. “I think, honestly, it’s her heart. I think that’s what students really remember the most. You have a professor who cares, but also didn’t make things easy for us. It's the idea of "I love you, so I’m going to push you"—that’s what really made an impact for so many students.”
So said during the course of his undergraduate career, he went to Squires for advising and questions about careers.
“It was just great. She was a wealth of information, incredibly helpful. It always felt like she was there and rooting for you, supporting you and wanting you to do your best,” So said.
Saran said Squires had a significant impact on him, particularly when he talked to her prior to his senior year.
“My junior year was pretty rough—that transition from pre-mechanical engineering to pro-school was really, really rough. I almost ended up flunking out of college. It was pretty bad. I got the chance to talk to her, and I had a bunch of questions, also seeking advice along the lines of, is there still a possibility for me to keep going, get an internship, go through the senior capstone project?” Saran said. “And so for the next hour, the gist of that conversation was she just basically gave me a lot of confidence. She said she believed in what I knew and kept me going. Essentially, she was one of the only professors that was fully confident in my skills and my potential to become an engineer.”
Saran said Squires will be remembered as the driving force behind OSU’s aerospace program, but also for everything she did for her students.
“You can ask a bunch of the faculty and the advisors how she took up her own time to advise students when there weren’t enough advisors to go around. She single-handedly managed a bunch of aero teams behind the scenes to allow each student to be a part of the projects, be able to compete for these projects, and just do all that,” Saran said. “She had so much leverage too when it came to finding jobs and internships for students. I know a classmate of mine managed to get an internship just because of her. She has this thing where she always told her students to put her down as a reference, and if any company asks about the student, she will always respond, ‘it will be a mistake to not hire this student.’”
Saran said he is currently on an email chain with OSU alumni who are sharing stories about Squires and how much she meant to them.
“It’s crazy to think how much she cares for her students, because I honestly believe that there’s no professor in existence that cares as much as she does,” Saran said.
Caldwell said Squires impacted her from a professional standpoint by helping to secure internships throughout her time at OSU, but also from a personal standpoint, by serving as a mentor and teaching her to become more loving and accepting of others.
“She taught me to treat everybody as equals. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what the color of your skin is, or what your major is, or how much money you have in the bank, or anything along those lines,” Caldwell said. “It’s one of those things like, you’re interested in aerospace, I’m interested in aerospace. We’re both intelligent, because we’re standing here looking at each other. We want to do this, so that’s cool, let’s go do stuff now. And that was a really cool lesson that not a lot of people have an opportunity to learn, it seems.”
Nembhard said Squires was inspired by her students and wanted to convey her love of aerospace to the next generation. Nembhard also said Squires created a sense of belonging among her students, particularly women and underrepresented students in the field of engineering.
“She’d had a career, she’d had a retirement—I don’t know her financial situation—but she did not need to do it for the money, it was pretty clear,” Nembhard said. “It was really just about giving back. I know that she was grateful for the career that she had, and for the life that engineering had afforded her, and wanted to encourage as many young people to do the same, especially women.”
Since Squires’ passing, OSU community members have gathered flowers in front of Rogers Hall, and placed a sign below Squires’ office window that reads, “Ad Astra Dr. Squires”—Ad Astra, Latin for “to the stars.”
Nembhard recently discovered a quote from Peter Drucker that reminded her of the leadership Squires provided for her students and the OSU community: “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”
“I feel like that’s what Nancy gave everybody in the most gentle, generous, servant-leadership type of way,” Nembhard said. “That she could lift your vision, that it was always possible, that you could learn no matter what...that she was always positive, always building people up.”
OSU AIAA has created a shared drive for those interested in sending letters to the Squires family. Additionally, the OSU School of MIME will hold a virtual vigil Thursday, June 25 at 7 p.m. to remember and celebrate Squires.