Dean's Circle Spotlight: A Pursuit that "Matters"

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Dr. Donald Day. Photo by Matt Laumann.

It’s no surprise that Donald Day, an accomplished physicist, built his career studying the trajectory of matter. What is surprising is how: not through the lens of a microscope, but across an advising desk at a Maryland community college.

For more than 50 years, Day has shepherded thousands of students—often first-generation college students, working parents, and others from demographics and backgrounds underrepresented in STEM—through the rigorous engineering program at Montgomery College (MC) in Rockville, Maryland. Each year, roughly 80 of them (more than all other regional community colleges combined) will matriculate to the University of Maryland, armed with the skillset and confidence to navigate, and succeed, at one of the best engineering programs in the country.

A native of Montana, Day earned his bachelor’s at MIT and master’s at Maryland, taking a job teaching physics for the engineering program at MC in 1967. While his Ph.D.—and a successful research stint at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory—poised him for a promising research career, it was clear to Day that his future wouldn’t be forged in a lab.

“I’m glad I did [research], but it wasn’t what I really liked to do,” he says. “I like interacting with people and students in particular, and I like solving problems—just not physics problems.”

Day has been instrumental in shaping the engineering curriculum at MC, which he says is intentionally modeled after UMD’s: For students to find success as transfers, they must be able to meet the rigor and requirements they’ll encounter at Maryland Engineering. This meant adding a six-semester associate’s degree option to MC’s portfolio, geared towards students who need to master math, reading, and other remedial skills.

“We will take students where they are, but when they leave us—they are ready,” Day says of MC’s engineering program. “It has a really strong effect on students who have been told their whole lives, ‘you’re not competent.’”


Offering one-to-one advising and peer coaching, transition courses, and onboarding activities like the summer scholarship program, the Clark School’s transfer student advising services—one of just a handful of school-specific transfer programs at UMD—lay the groundwork for students transferring into Maryland Engineering from community colleges or other schools on campus.

With Day’s help, MC students are more confident navigating UMD’s program; but paying for it, he realized, was something that still burdened many. So, last year, he established the Donald Day and Karen Gruner Scholarship in Engineering, providing financial relief to MC students transferring into Maryland’s engineering school.

“An ongoing challenge for students is the finances, and that’s how this gift makes such a huge impact,” says Shannon Hayes Buenaflor, assistant director of transfer students at Maryland Engineering. The commute, expectations, and workload of UMD, she says, can be overwhelming for students accustomed to juggling school with other responsibilities. Taking financial worry out of the equation, particularly when entering as a junior—notoriously the hardest year—can be a game-changer.

“In my life, every single dollar counts, and scholarships always help me to get closer to my dreams of being a physician,” says Farshad Mashhadi, the scholarship’s first recipient and a bioengineering major managing a family, work, and university life. “I am so grateful for this scholarship; I hope I deserve this great opportunity.”

Day keeps tabs on hundreds of his former students; images of their successes, career victories, and growing families are plastered on the walls of his office. For Day, it’s the outcome of a successful experiment.

“There’s a buzz phrase in our field for people who fight for transfer students and their success; it’s transfer champions,” says Buenaflor, who was recently recognized as a transfer champion by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students. “And that’s Dr. Day: He goes above and beyond to understand each student’s story and advocate for their success.”

THE DEAN’S CIRCLE recognizes those who have given $100,000 or more during their lifetime to the Clark School.

To learn how your charitable donation can make a significant difference in the future of the Clark School, contact Almarie Wood, director of development, at 301-405-9836 or

Published April 13, 2022