Construction science professor Ben Bigelow ’05 uses fellowship funding to support student endeavors.
It was 2012. The residential construction industry was emerging from a slump, and industry donors he had counted on to cover student travel expenses were unable to help.
In the end, Bigelow’s students worked long hours on a demolition project to close the funding gap, enabling all six to attend the show and participate in the competition. But the experience only reinforced the young professor’s determination to raise enough money for a permanent travel expense endowment to ensure that he and his students would never again face such a dilemma.
Last year, Bigelow received a reprieve to his student funding challenges, but not through the travel endowment he had envisioned. Instead, he received a faculty fellowship created through the Texas A&M Foundation by George Seagraves II ’80, a retired executive of homebuilding giant D.R. Horton.
Seagraves and Bigelow met in 2015 at the NAHB show in Las Vegas, where Seagraves was a judge for the student competition. It didn’t take long for Seagraves to note the accomplishments Bigelow had already made in his short career—and to foresee his long-term impact.
“Three things impressed me about Ben,” Seagraves recalled. “He had worked professionally for a large homebuilder and was researching recurring warranty issues for the Texas Association of Builders. He had received a major grant from the NAHB. And the group of students he had there with him was very interested in residential construction.”
Seagraves likewise took note of Bigelow’s dedication to his students, as well as to his philosophy that preparing them for residential construction careers should involve a multidisciplinary approach and a heart for creating “homes” instead of mere structures. He appreciated Bigelow’s enthusiasm in showing his students the “personally satisfying career options” available in the homebuilding field.
A year after Seagraves and Bigelow met, Texas A&M’s College of Architecture chose Bigelow as the inaugural recipient of the newly created George W. Seagraves ’80 Faculty Fellowship in Residential Construction.
At a time when the majority of construction science students choose the commercial building field, Seagraves is encouraged by the energy and enthusiasm that up-and-coming professors like Bigelow bring to the teaching of residential construction. It’s this fresh outlook that swayed Seagraves’ decision to fund a faculty fellowship rather than a professorship, which typically goes to a more seasoned faculty member.
Decades of experience taught Seagraves, who studied landscape architecture, that there’s a lot more to residential construction than blueprints and machinery. “Homebuilding is not just the act of building houses,” he explained. “It’s sales and marketing, accounting, human resources, land development and much more.”
Sharing Seagraves’ mindset, Bigelow is a staunch believer in exposing students from a wide range of academic disciplines to the art of homebuilding—a mission he carries out through hands-on multidisciplinary student projects. Thanks to Seagraves’ generosity, Bigelow can now afford to offer such experiences to even more students.
“George, to me, embodies the Aggie Spirit,” Bigelow said. “He saw a place where he could make an impact, he had the ability to do it, and he acted on it.”
Texas A&M senior Roxy Treviño ’17, president of the Texas A&M student chapter of the American Institute of Architects, counts herself among Bigelow's biggest fans. Two years ago, the environmental design major from Weslaco, Texas, enrolled in the College of Architecture’s Tiny House course, which Bigelow led with Gabriela Campagnol, assistant professor of architecture. The program challenged student teams to build a "tiny house" of less than 150 square feet for Austin's Community First! Village, which provides affordable, sustainable housing for chronically homeless residents.
While Trevino was attracted to the service nature of the interdisciplinary project, she didn’t foresee the added benefit of working alongside construction science students. While she and her fellow environmental design teammates focused on how the house appeared and functioned, the construction science students concentrated on the building process and completion deadline.
"As an architectural design student, I had never experienced the real-world dynamic of working with building constructors," Treviño explained. "We got to be part of the construction process, while the construction students got to be part of the design process."
Bigelow, Treviño said, helped maintain an open line of communication between the two student groups and encouraged them to explore new ideas. Treviño was especially impressed to learn that he and Campagnol directed the project in addition to their required teaching loads.
“That fact alone says so much about their character and makes me proud to be a Texas Aggie,” she said. “This project gave me a newfound respect for construction science professionals, and I look forward to working with them in the future.”
With funds from the Seagraves fellowship, Bigelow demonstrates that student success—not self-promotion—is at the heart of his work.
“I use fellowship funding for something as simple as paying for a dinner with industry reps to thank them for helping with our capstone project,” Bigelow said. “The funds might also help send students to the International Builders’ Show, where they see the size and scope of the homebuilding industry and participate in the national student competition.”
Fellowship funds also are indirectly helping grow his idea for a student travel endowment by providing the financial support he needs to visit with potential donors. Thus far, students have raised $15,000 for the fund, matched with a $10,000 gift by the Construction Science Department’s Construction Industry Advisory Council. While the combined amount affords the minimum needed to create the travel endowment, Bigelow said the fund should ideally reach $125,000 to fully support annual student travel to the NAHB competition.
Seagraves considers his endowment more of an investment than a gift. In Bigelow, he envisions an educational and professional impact that will spread and multiply far into the future.
“When a young faculty member is already on a path where he or she can make a real contribution, anything you can do to help out can be of great consequence,” Seagraves said. “When providing a faculty fellowship, the costs are defined and the timeline is defined, but the potential benefits are beyond our imagination. The work Ben is undertaking with his students is clear proof of this.”
Additional donations are needed to fully fund the travel endowment Ben Bigelow '05 created to support annual student travel to the NAHB competition.