Celebrating a Legacy of Mentorship: Nicole Hoekstra's 26 Years of Teaching, Research, and Service at WWU

WWU Professor of Engineering & Design Nicole Hoekstra will retire in June after 26 years of service to the university and its students.

“Let’s go talk to him, I bet you’ll get an internship."

It was 14 years ago that WWU Professor of Engineering & Design Nicole Hoekstra said those words to me as an undergraduate while at a conference, pulled me away from my friend group, and helped/forced me to go network and speak with my future PhD advisor.

This small act of mentorship and selflessness changed my life, as I am now Nicole’s colleague — teaching and mentoring students in the same program she once taught me. Former students of Nicole’s have countless stories like mine. From helping soon-to-be grads obtain their dream jobs, to encouraging non-traditional students to learn engineering, to finding creative solutions to include pre-majors in research, Nicole Hoekstra is a mentor through-and-through.

So, after 26 years of teaching, service, and mentorship, Polymer Materials Engineering (PME) Professor Nicole Hoekstra will retire from the Engineering & Design department with professor emeritus status this year.

Nicole came to Western in 1998 after a career in industry as a process and design engineer for a medical device manufacturer.

“I taught my first class while in graduate school, and really loved the experience," said Hoekstra.

After graduating with a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, she went to work for IDEX Health and Science, a medical device manufacturer in Oak Harbor. While at IDEX, she worked with numerous WWU engineering alumni who “were all impressive," and in the winter of 1998, she got her first opportunity to teach a night class in PME while still working full time. Since then, she has taught five to six PME classes per year, developed and improved myriad curricula, performed research with engineering undergraduates, and served on countless committees.

Over the years, Nicole has worked hard to teach and mentor industry-ready graduates by establishing consistent and relevant industry-sponsored class, research, and capstone projects. She has taught and made an impact on over 1700 Engineering and Design students. Nicole said she is most proud of her work improving the premajor experience through innovative hands-on class projects, research in plastics recycling, and developing a professional and inclusive culture.

These efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, especially by women and other underrepresented students in engineering, with the Polymer Materials Engineering program having reached gender parity in our student body for the past three years. As an alumna and colleague of Nicole, I can say with the utmost respect and sincerity that Nicole has changed our engineering department and our industry for the better.

In retirement, Nicole plans to travel more with her husband Brian and other family. She also plans to spend a lot more of her time sewing, quilting, gardening, fishing, and volunteering in her community. Since she was granted professor emeritus status this spring, myself, the other faculty, students, and alumni of PME are all excited to know that she also plans on staying connected with the department through continuing to teach industry seminars and perform outreach activities with premajors and the community.

Thank you Nicole for all that you have done for our students, our alumni, our industry, and our community! It is because of you that I am here, and although I am going to miss our spontaneous deliberations, I am excited for your well-deserved retirement with its quilting conclaves, garden projects, and marathon road-trips.

See what others have to say about Nicole’s impacts on the broader WWU community below:

"I was midway through the Plastics Engineering Technology program when Nicole was hired. At the time, there were no other females in my class cohort and I had no female professors teaching my classes, so it was inspiring to have Nicole join the program. She was such a strong, confident, caring person, and had an infectious enthusiasm for engineering. I really admired her ability to really dig into a problem, ask questions and come up with creative solutions. Coming back to WWU many years later as a professor, I have continually been inspired by the dedication that Nicole has for the plastics program and her students. Role models like Nicole were few and far between in my early career, and I am grateful for her encouragement and support. She will be missed!"

- Amanda Murphy, professor of Chemistry, director of AMSEC, 2001 PET Alumna, WWU

"Nicole has been a guiding light for me since my interview and through out my first year at Western. Her support, both professionally and personally, has been invaluable. I'll miss her incredible knowledge and warm personality. Thank you, Nicole for everything."

- Peng Gao, assistant professor of Polymer Materials Engineering, WWU

"Nicole puts the student experience first and foremost. She gives them her full authentic attention, whether it is a freshman who wants to learn more about the engineering labs or a graduating senior who is learning to negotiate their first salary and benefits. Students are her first priority, always. Nicole is one of those mentors that faculty, staff, and students go to when they need advice and a voice of reason. You can count on her to be real with you and to help problem solve the issue. Her door is always open and no matter how busy she is, she will make time for you. No matter what. She is also up for any social gathering and costume party!

I often talk to alumni in the community, and they ask if she is still teaching, and then they tell me she was their favorite professor. She has made an impact on so many people through the years. Nicole will not only leave an empty office behind, but a legacy that will be remembered for a very, very long time."

- Lisa Ochs, pre-major advisor, Engineering & Design, WWU

"Nicole’s mentorship and friendship has been a constant for me. She has been my rock and a driving force to push me out of my comfort zone. This is not something she does just for me; she elevates those around her. Nicole is also the most caring, dedicated and accomplished professor I know. She questions everything and strives to do and learn more to enhance the student experience. She embraces change and welcomes new ideas and input from everyone around her. Nicole is one of the most amazing people that I know."

- Nicole Larson, professor of Polymer Materials Engineering, WWU

"Nicole has been an amazing visionary and leader towards inspiring WWU graduates to consider continuing their educations with an advanced degree. As a result of her effort and starting with John Misasi in 2010, her efforts have led to more than 12 Western students completing their Ph.D.s in Polymer Science and Engineering, leading to profound contributions to science and education.”

- Distinguished Professor Jeff Wiggins, University of Southern Mississippi

"Nicole is leaving WWU but her impact will remain forever. She has helped to create a vibrant and inclusive community of learners and educators in our department. Her contributions are many - from mentoring faculty & students to creating research experiences for students (even premajors!) to transiting our technology programs into accredited engineering programs and many more.

On a personal level, Nicole holds a special place in my heart as a mentor and friend. She was my first ever female role model and has helped me learn how to navigate the challenging landscape of being true to myself while maintaining traditional academic expectations. She reminded often me that my unique ideas and perspectives are important and that I am a valuable member of our department. She showed me that you can trust in the process, take risks, and push boundaries all at the same time. I am thankful for her support, honesty, and guidance and, most importantly, for always taking the time to listen."

- Jill Davishahl, associate professor, First Year Programs, WWU

"Nicole Hoekstra is the best mentor that I have ever seen, and she has helped and inspire an astonishing number of students, staff, and faculty at WWU. Her absence will be felt by her colleagues in ways we can scarcely even imagine, and dare not even think about. Maybe she will read her tributes and change her mind!

- Mark Peyron, Associate Professor, Polymer Materials Engineering, WWU

"Nicole Hoekstra embarked on her academic journey at WWU in the late 90's and showed up as a bright-eyed and motivated professor ready to take on the world. 26 years later, she has infused her faithful minions with that same ambitious drive, and they have literally been changing the world ever since!"

- Arunas Oslapas, professor, Industrial Design, WWU

"Nicole, your mentorship was a cornerstone of my academic journey; I am grateful for your wisdom and advice along the way! Your warm welcome to me, when I joined WWU, helped me navigate a new location and job with ease. Your kindness and support have left an indelible mark on my life. Thank you for everything."

- Sura Alqudah, associate professor of Engineering & Design, WWU

"Nicole could anticipate challenges within the department and then held meetings to try to overcome the challenges. I really appreciate the time she took to mentor new faculty and to provide constructive feedback to tenure track faculty so that they could prepare their research and teaching materials. I appreciate that she helped provide guidance to transition the vehicle program to engineering. She was generous of her time and wisdom."

- Eric Leonhardt, professor, Engineering and Design, WWU

"Over the years, we've loved having Nicole visit our ID class to talk about color in processing. She is engaging, enthusiastic, and filled with expertise."

- Jason Morris, program director, Industrial Design, WWU

"Prof. Hoekstra – Thank you for being such a remarkable teacher, leader and mentor to students, faculty and staff alike. Your vision, creativity and commitment to student success has made WWU a premier institution for Engineering and Materials Science. You leave us with a long list of accomplishments and you have given us lots of momentum for success in the future. Enjoy retirement and keep in touch!"

- David Rider, professor of Chemistry, AMSEC, Polymer Materials Engineering, WWU