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Maddie Guillen '16

Maddie Guillen
Maddie Guillen '16

By Shay Barnhart, Corps of Cadets communications director

It sounds simple enough. Maddie Guillen ’16 graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in electrical engineering in May and went to work in June as a systems engineer for Northrop Grumman.

Guillen’s mom used to work at a Northrop Grumman office, too. When Guillen was in elementary school, her mom was a janitor who cleaned several office buildings in their hometown of Chantilly, Virginia.

“It’s extremely humbling to be able to say that my mom, a refugee from El Salvador who used to clean a Northrop Grumman office, now has a daughter who will be working for Northrop Grumman as an engineer,” Guillen said.

Her job is the end result of the Northrop Grumman Scholarship Program in Military Leadership, which offers six scholarships for engineering majors in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets. Guillen was among the first recipients of the award, which provides about $10,000 in tuition assistance annually and a paid internship.

“From any angle, Maddie’s story is inspiring,” said Lt. Col. Don Russell, deputy commandant for the Corps’ Citizen-Leader Track, from which Guillen graduated in 2016. “Here we have a first-generation college student who excels in the Corps of Cadets, eventually being selected as the cadet commander of all 270 cadets in the Citizen-Leader Track. She lands amazing internships and so impresses her internship supervisor at Northrop Grumman she is essentially offered a position nearly a year before she graduates.”

Guillen’s story showcases the reason the partnership between the Corps, the College of Engineering, and Northrop Grumman came to be in 2015.

“Northrop Grumman is committed to and pleased to support the partnership with Virginia Tech. The Corps produces quality candidates with ready-made leadership skills and experience. We are very proud of Maddie and delighted that she has decided to come to work at Northrop Grumman,” said Doss Halsey ’79, a Northrop Grumman program manager. He is among a group of advisors to the Citizen-Leader Track.

Started in 2015, the program supports the cadet scholarships and the Northrop Grumman Senior Faculty Fellowship in Advanced Intelligence Systems, all aimed at creating leaders who are poised to solve the national security challenges of the 21st century. The faculty fellowship is designed to support an outstanding faculty member in the College of Engineering who is affiliated with the Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology.

Following Corps’ tradition, Maddie Guillen '16 signed her name on Lane Hall after she graduated.Following Corps’ tradition, Guillen signed her name on Lane Hall after she graduated.

Maddie Guillen
Following Corps’ tradition, Maddie Guillen '16 signed her name on Lane Hall after she graduated.Following Corps’ tradition, Guillen signed her name on Lane Hall after she graduated.

Guillen discovered engineering through a high school guidance counselor at Chantilly Academy, who suggested she give the Girls Exploring Engineering class a try.

“I was doing a bunch of computer classes and was really interested in that at the time,” she said. “I had never known about engineering, and I fell in love with it.”

Her brother suggested she fill an empty block in her class schedule with JROTC, the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. It focuses on character education, leadership, diversity, and other skills. “I think he thought it would just be a good experience for me,” Guillen said.

She liked it, and discovered she could pursue an engineering career through the military. That brought her to Virginia Tech. She eventually transitioned from Air Force ROTC to the Citizen-Leader Track and from studying computer engineering to electrical engineering.

Guillen interned with Delphi during her junior year, working on the programming for autonomous vehicles. Afterward, she realized she didn’t want to spend all her time developing software.

“I really wanted to know how computers work,” she said. “Electrical engineering allows me to do some programming but focuses on hardware design, which is what I really want to do. Changing majors was a big step for me, but it worked out for the best.”

Guillen competed for and won one of the six Northrop Grumman scholarships during her junior year. The financial support changed her college experience.

Being a first-generation college student came with challenges. For Guillen, it meant her parents had a hard time understanding the demands of college classes and all the bills that came with them.

“My parents didn’t fully grasp the billing system and where the money was going,” Guillen said. “I had to sit down and plan out my budget every year and pay all the bills. For other students, their parents take care of all that.”

Having tuition money from the Northrop Grumman scholarship was a welcome change. “For me to even come to Virginia Tech is a big thing financially,” she said. “Having that money really alleviated a lot of what I thought I would be paying and it alleviated a lot of stress for me.”

The scholarship came with a paid internship in summer 2016 in McLean, Virginia, where Guillen spent her time shadowing two directors. She learned the ins and outs of project management, budgeting and employee relations — and solidified her long-term goal to earn her MBA and become a project manager.

“Maddie already has a well-developed sense for what leadership is all about,” said Kathy McLernon, the director of quality, safety, and mission assurance for Northrop Grumman Technology Services’ System Modernization and Services Division and one of Guillen’s supervisors. “At Northrop Grumman, we are evaluated on both what we do and how we do it. The leadership skills you learn in the Corps are directly applicable and extremely valuable here.” 

Guillen made an impression because she quickly developed relationships with the executive team and the other interns, McLernon said. Northrop Grumman offered her a job in September 2016, eight months before she graduated from Virginia Tech.

“Maddie demonstrated the skills we expect from a junior level engineer and saw repeated success working on an intern team that explored solutions to software engineering challenges, leading us to transition her from intern to a full-time employee,” McLernon said. “When she starts work here, she will have a pre-existing support network that ensures her warm welcome, as well as a group of people who are sincerely interested in helping her succeed.”

Maddie Guillen '16 as a cadet.

Maddie Guillen
Maddie Guillen '16 as a cadet.