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“A hero without a cape”: Elise Dorough recognized by the UW College of Engineering for her commitment to diversity and graduate student success

Elise Dorough, Director of Graduate Student Services for the Allen School, was recently honored by the University of Washington’s College of Engineering with a 2020 Professional Staff Award. In announcing the award, the College cited Dorough’s success in managing the growth of the full-time Ph.D. program and her leadership in transforming the graduate advising process to be more efficient, effective and responsive to the needs of both the students and their faculty advisors. It also highlighted her role in supporting a diverse community within the Allen School and in computer science graduate education generally. 

The school will honor Dorough during an online event, “TGIE” (Thank Goodness It’s Elise), taking place later today. The virtual celebration — a special edition of the school’s weekly “TGIF” gathering — was organized by the graduate students who have benefited from her guidance and compassion.

Dorough first joined the Allen School in 2010 as a member of the undergraduate advising team. When the previous, long-time Ph.D. program adviser decided to retire, professor Hank Levy, former director of the Allen School, appointed Dorough to take on the role in 2014. Since then, Dorough has overseen the expansion of the Ph.D. program from fewer than 200 students to more than 300 today. During most of that time, she was the sole staff member, which meant responding to the needs of current students, prospective students, school leadership, faculty advisors, and campus partners. 

According to professor Anna Karlin, the Allen School’s associate director of graduate studies, the transition when Dorough stepped into the job was seamless.

“It was as if Elise had been doing this job her whole life,” Karlin recalled. “In fact, she has taken the quality of the work to a whole new level. Elise runs virtually every aspect of the Ph.D. program — from recruiting and orientation, to annual evaluations and the day-to-day counseling that the grad students appreciate so much. 

“She acts as a mother, counselor, caretaker, problem-solver, friend and confidante to a group of about 300 Ph.D. students,” Karlin continued. “It is simply impossible to imagine how our graduate program would function without her.”

Dorough, who was elevated to her current title of Director of Graduate Student Services in 2018, serves as a bridge between the students and the faculty and manages an annual admissions process that attracts roughly 2,000 applications annually — double what it was when she took over the position. She is also the go-to resource for Allen School Ph.D. students seeking assistance with a broad range of academic and personal issues. Along the way, she has spearheaded the introduction of a number of process improvements, from automating otherwise time-consuming administrative and reporting tasks, to streamlining faculty review and qualifying exam procedures.

“Elise is a key pillar of our graduate program. She can answer any question and she can handle any problem with calm, empathy, and resolve,” said professor Magdalena Balazinska, director of the Allen School. “She also turns any challenge into an opportunity, and has transformed, scaled, and smoothed all our processes.

“Most recently, Elise demonstrated inspiring leadership when we had to move our prospective graduate visit days online,” Balazinska recalled. “This is a major event, with over 100 students flying from all over the world to Seattle to visit the Allen School. We had to move the event online in less than two weeks and it was before we all became experts in Zoom and doing everything online. Elise did an amazing job in re-organizing the event, leading student volunteers and faculty, and putting together the visit. I received many compliments from prospective students about the quality of our event. We also ended-up with a very high acceptance rate.”

Dorough (front left) and Allen School attendees at the Grace Hopper Celebration

Dorough also has devoted her time and talents to crafting programs, events, and training opportunities that have helped the Allen School build and sustain a welcoming and inclusive culture. Her contributions have included guidance for faculty on implementing a holistic admissions process, “Diversi-teas” for current and prospective students from under-represented minorities, and workshops for faculty, staff, and students. As a founding member of the Allen School’s Diversity Committee, Dorough also has actively sought out training for herself on best practices from national organizations focused on increasing diversity in computing and increased the school’s presence at recruiting events specifically focused on students from diverse backgrounds.

Her emphasis on diversity and inclusion extends beyond the UW campus. Since 2017, Dorough has served as the Allen School’s point-person for participation in the FLIP Alliance for Diversifying Future Leadership in the Professoriate. The FLIP Alliance is a group of 11 leading computer science schools that have committed to increasing the number of under-represented minorities in their respective Ph.D. programs. The ultimate goal of the alliance, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), is to grow the number of under-represented minorities who earn doctoral degrees in computer science and go on to become faculty members mentoring the next generation of innovators and leaders in the field.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Dorough’s impact comes from the students she works with day in, day out to ensure that they have access to the courses, advising, and services they need to not just survive in graduate school, but to thrive. More than 80 Ph.D. students — including students who aren’t directly enrolled in the Allen School but collaborate with members of the faculty — paid tribute to her compassion, support, and knowledge. Among the comments praising her to the college’s selection committee:

“Elise makes everything in CSE better. Whenever I have a question or a problem, she’s the first person I ask. She always either knows exactly what to do, or does everything she can to help you figure it out. The Ph.D. process would be orders of magnitude more stressful and difficult to navigate without Elise always being there to help us through it.”

“Elise is amazing! She always goes above and beyond what her job requires! I’ve never dealt with an administrative person who cared about the students as much as Elise does.”

“Knowing you have a support system that will try to work with you is essential to feeling secure in a community; Elise is the backbone of that support system for Ph.D. students in the Allen School.”

“Elise may have only one job, but she does something like 20. I can’t imagine the Allen School running the way it does without her. She is also a fantastic advocate for the well-being of students in the Allen School, and so contributes significantly to its positive and welcoming culture.”

Ph.D. alumna Kira Goldner (left) with Dorough on graduation day

“It’s very hard to get grad students to unanimously agree on anything, but I have never heard anything but love and admiration towards Elise from the grad student community.”

“Elise is a legend in CSE, a hero without a cape.”

“I wish our whole academic culture modeled Elise.”

Levy believes that Dorough’s hands-on, personal touch and her pursuit of excellence in all that she does have been integral to the success of the Ph.D. program.

“Elise is a truly outstanding professional whose work has had an enormous impact,” Levy said. “Maintaining a supportive culture and a high level of satisfaction and service in the face of such rapid growth is a remarkable achievement, and one that Elise deserves complete credit for. Simply put, Elise is a superstar.”

Shine on, Elise! And congratulations on this well-deserved recognition of all that you do for our school and our students!