Alumni Linda and Lee Norris' Extraordinary Gift Exemplifies Their Commitment to Increasing Diversity in Engineering

March 25, 2019

Growing up in Corpus Christi in the 1960s, Linda Steen Norris found her educational experience in high school to be unchallenging and gender-biased. As a young woman, she was presented with only a limited number of career options, and her potential to excel in STEM fields like engineering and science went unexplored.

“I remember being told that the only thing I could do as a woman was become a teacher,” said Norris, who went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from The University of Texas at Austin. “It was only when I arrived at UT that the world was finally opened up to me. Thanks to some particularly inspiring professors, I could see new and exciting possibilities ahead.”

To give future generations similar experiences, to encourage more women to pursue degrees and careers in STEM and to foster supportive cohort-based programs for students, Linda and her husband Lee, a mechanical engineering alumnus (B.S. 1970), have made a $1 million gift to UT Austin, with $500,000 toward scholarships for women in the Cockrell School of Engineering and $500,000 toward need-based scholarships for students participating in the University Leadership Network (ULN), a program to help students develop leadership skills and help encourage students to graduate in four years.

From left: mechanical engineering sophomore Aleka Neptune, Linda Norris (B.S. Education 1970, M.A. Education 1972), Lee Norris (B.S. ME 1970) and civil engineering junior Kate Dannemiller. Neptune and Dannemiller participate in the Cockrell School's Women in Engineering Program.

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UT Austin not only launched Linda and Lee on their respective career paths but also brought them together. After initially accepting admission to Rice University in the summer of 1966, Lee decided just three months before the fall semester to attend UT Austin instead. Four years later, he and Linda met and instantly became “sweethearts,” they said. Following their graduation in 1970, Lee left for Stanford University to pursue his master’s degree and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, and Linda joined him in California two years later after completing her master’s degree at UT Austin.

At Stanford, Linda assumed a key role in the university’s Association for Continuing Education (ACE), which she describes as the best job she ever had. At the time, Stanford’s engineering school was working with corporate partners to operate the Stanford Instructional Television Network, through which the university could broadcast engineering lectures to employees in the San Francisco/San Jose area who wanted to pursue graduate degrees but were unable to attend school during normal hours. When the network was not being utilized by the engineering school, ACE would take over the airwaves to broadcast continuing education courses in a variety of disciplines.

“ACE was a small organization — just the general manager and myself — and, if we thought of something new that we wanted to try, we could do it,” Linda recalls. “It was a primitive version of what institutions are doing now with online courses.”

After Lee completed his Ph.D. and wrapped up his first job at Bechtel, the couple moved to Houston, where Lee began a 20-year-long career working on multiphase fluid mechanics for Exxon Production Research. After her inspiring and successful experiences at Stanford, Linda decided to return to school to embark on a new phase of her professional life. She studied accounting at the University of Houston, became a CPA and started a tax accounting practice.

“I think I have a lot in common with students who have been limited by their surroundings or discouraged from following their dreams,” Linda said. “Like many students participating in the University Leadership Network, I was also the first in my immediate family to attend college. I understand what they’re going through, and I want to help them achieve the success they deserve.”

To further strengthen the growing diversity in our nation’s workforce and ensure that future Longhorns are empowered to pursue the careers they are passionate about, Linda and Lee have decided to support students through the Steen-Norris Scholarship in Engineering for women students and the Steen-Norris University Leadership Network Scholarship for those participating in ULN.

Each year, 500 freshmen are selected to participate in ULN, an incentive-based scholarship program for students with demonstrated financial need. The nationally recognized program reflects the university’s commitment to providing a safe and supportive environment for all students.

Through the efforts of the Cockrell School’s Women in Engineering Program (WEP), the school strives to recruit and retain more women engineering students and provide support systems that encourage the success of women in Texas Engineering. WEP connects students, educators and professionals to the world of engineering through recruitment initiatives, supportive structures and educational services to promote the advancement of women in engineering.

“I’ve always wondered, ‘If there are just as many women who are good at math and science as there are men, then why aren’t there more women in engineering?’” Linda said. “I’m hoping that, through these scholarships, we can introduce more young women to STEM and help students from all backgrounds excel academically.”

Lee added that while things are better now than when he and Linda graduated, they can still be better.

“Engineering is closer to a meritocracy than almost any other field — for most engineers, it doesn’t matter what your gender is as long as you can get the job done,” he said. “Any profession would benefit from having multiple, diverse perspectives, and engineering will absolutely be changed for the better by getting more women involved.”

Following his career at Exxon, Lee began working for Scandpower Petroleum Technology and remained with the company through its acquisition by Schlumberger before leaving in 2016. He now considers himself semi-retired, though he is still actively involved as a principal for a startup venture. He also devotes his time to mentoring current Texas Engineering students, returning to campus to meet with and deliver lectures to undergraduates.

Through their generous investment, Linda and Lee are amplifying their commitment to UT Austin students, with the hopes of helping the best and brightest young minds change the world.

“I look at these programs and the support networks they provide, and I think, ‘Wow, I wish I’d had that,’” Linda said. “WEP and ULN provide students with the training and experience they need to make a difference in our society. By launching more of these success stories, we can create role models for the next generation.”