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Dayton Engineer

Valerie Dahlem '85 reflects on University of Dayton's unique education

By Elizabeth Skelin, marketing communications intern

As Valerie Dahlem ’85 prepares to retire from her position at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB), she is taking time to reflect on how her University of Dayton School of Engineering education prepared her to lead a billion dollar organization. 

Dahlem received both her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and her master’s in engineering management from the University of Dayton. Upon graduation, she moved to Detroit to work in propulsion at Williams International. 

Since 1989, she has worked full-time for the government, working up to her current position as chief of the Propulsion Acquisition Division at WPAFB. Dahlem leads about 180 people responsible for buying propulsion systems and technology for the Air Force and manages an annual $1 billion budget, ensuring the money is used appropriately. Above all, she continues to live out UD’s model of servant leadership in her day-to-day work.  

During her time at UD, Dahlem completed a co-op as an assistant program manager in propulsion at WPAFB. Her time in program management prepared her to be a team leader, to integrate information from across the organization and to work with people of all backgrounds. 

Dahlem attributes her leadership ability to her UD education and her mentors, some of whom were also UD grads. “Service-based education prepared me to be a better leader, to be open to a diverse workforce and to be respectful of everyone in the organization.” 

Although one of the few women in her major’s graduating class, she notes that she never felt singled out or different, receiving every opportunity possible. She acted as an officer for UD’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), which provided her with the confidence to enter the aviation industry. 

Through her work in the society, conference attendance and meeting others with a shared love of aviation, Dahlem entered the workforce with a strong professional network and the interpersonal skills necessary for her career. Her engineering classes — from physics to controls theory — created a strong foundation where she learned in a team environment that readied her for a successful technical career. 

As a commuter student and Dayton native, Dahlem always felt accepted, welcomed and remembers her undergraduate years fondly. From late nights in the library to watching the men’s basketball Cinderella season of 1984, there was never a dull moment. 

Since graduation, Dahlem has been involved in mentoring UD women engineers as well as working with the Dayton-Cincinnati Chapter of AIAA, all while cheering on our basketball team. 

Dahlem expressed the importance of UD’s Marianist philosophy of educating the whole person; graduates leave UD not just as better engineers but as better people. 

As a result, she was prepared to be a leader and an example for others in the workforce. 

“The technical work, the math, could have been taught anywhere,” she said. “But the focus on service, ethics and humanity could only have been from the University of Dayton.”

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