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Thornton Hall Flags Honor Engineering School's Diversity

Aug. 27, 2007 — The Engineering School’s Thornton Hall has become a colorful place, with 75 flags adorning the walls in a bright representation of the broadened ethnicity of the students, faculty and staff in the School.

When Thornton Hall was erected in 1935, the School of Engineering and Applied Science was a very different place than it is today. The student body was made up entirely of Caucasian males, as was the rest of the University of Virginia. Over the years a great deal has changed in the Engineering School, the University and the world.

Today, there are 2,000 undergraduates in the Engineering School and 650 graduate students, and collectively they represent 75 nations of the world. Last year Dean James H. Aylor, who understands the global nature of engineering and the importance of offering engineering students the broadest possible educational experience, decided to celebrate the diversity of the school by hanging flags throughout Thornton Hall.
“I wanted our students, faculty and visitors to have a visual sense of the diversity of this school, and I think the flags accomplish that,” Aylor said. “In addition, we all know that today’s engineers must be able to address and solve world problems, so I wanted our students to think about the world with a wider lens every time they walk through these halls.” In addition to the U.S., countries represented by flags include China, Egypt, France, South Africa, Germany, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bolivia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Nigeria, Turkey and the United Kingdom — and 60 other countries.

Thornton Hall is the central home of the Engineering, which includes departments of biomedical, chemical, civil and environmental, electrical and computer, mechanical and aerospace, and systems and information engineering, as well as computer science, science, technology and society and materials science and engineering. Additional buildings in the Engineering School complex include MR5, the biomedical engineering building, and Wilsdorf Hall, a research facility for nanotechnology, materials science and engineering, and chemical engineering.

Thornton Hall was designed by the University’s Architectural Commission and named in honor of William M. Thornton, chairman of the faculty from 1888–1896, the first dean of the Engineering School (1904–1925) and professor emeritus of applied mathematics. The chemical engineering wing was added in 1950–1951, and Thornton Hall was enlarged again to accommodate aeronautical and mechanical engineering in the late 1950s. The building was renovated and the student lounge refurbished in 2002 with contributions from generous School alumni and friends.

The flags, however, represent a different kind of renovation — an evolution of SEAS students’ perspectives and the increasing global understanding necessary to succeed in engineering and myriad other professions. “My hope is that every time our students traverse Thornton Hall’s walkway and see the flags, they are reminded that their education can be used across the globe to help others,” Aylor said.

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