ODU’s Distinguished Alumni Awardees include Engineering Grads Audra Bullock and Johnny Garcia.
Engineering alumni Audra Bullock and Johnny Garcia will be recognized during the Old Dominion University Alumni Association's 2021 Distinguished Alumni Honorees Dinner on Oct. 15.
The awards are given annually to alumni who have brought extraordinary honor to ODU through distinction in their fields.
Audra Bullock, '96, '97 M.S., '00 Ph.D., founding director and president of Tidewater Friends of Foster Care (TFFC), will be awarded the Jack Frost Alumni Service Award for her work improving the lives of foster children in Hampton Roads.
Johnny Garcia '11, Ph.D., founder and CEO of SimIS Inc., will be recognized with the Distinguished Alumni Award. Garcia is a community leader and champion for diversity.
Along with the awards, the 40 Under 40 Alumni Recognition Program, created in 2020, will highlight Monarchs who have forged exceptional achievements.
Audra Bullock never intended to leave her engineering position at NASA.
She had, after all, earned her doctorate in electrical engineering from ODU, spent six years as a faculty member at the University of Hawaii and worked her way up to mission manager at NASA Langley Research Center.
But a very small boy changed everything.
"I never intended to start a nonprofit, she said. "I never intended to quit my job at NASA and do this for free, all day long. But that's where we are."
"Where we are" is the small downtown Norfolk office of Tidewater Friends of Foster Care, an organization that Bullock founded in 2016 to improve the lives of foster care children in Hampton Roads.
Bullock was first and foremost an engineer.
In her junior year - while earning the first of her three electrical engineering degrees at ODU - Bullock was offered a chance to work on an undergraduate research project with Professor Amin Dharamsi in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
The project, focused on spectroscopy of oxygen molecules, led to an accelerated master's degree and continuation of her education.
"I loved the ODU experience and ended up staying all the way through my Ph.D.," Bullock said.
She spent six years as a faculty member at the University of Hawaii and then transitioned to NASA Langley Research Center in 2009.
As a NASA engineer and mission manager, Bullock worked with low orbit, airborne, satellite-borne and International Space Station missions.
Bullock also worked on one of the space shuttle missions. "It was amazing," she said. "It was like a highlight of my life to have seen that shuttle launch, sit at mission control and watch the data come in."
And then, that one little boy changed her whole trajectory.
Bullock and her husband, Richard Litton, had decided to become foster parents.
Their house felt empty - Litton's three grown children from a previous marriage were off at college. The couple wanted more children but not necessarily their own.
Foster care was a natural choice.
It was, however, an eye-opening experience.
"There were things we just didn't understand," Bullock said. "We just assumed that these kids were taken care of, or that there were enough foster parents. It was so much more than that and the need was so great."
They became licensed for foster care and were quickly - within days - placed with a young boy, one month shy of his third birthday.
"He changed everything," Bullock said.
The boy, now nine, was fostered and then permanently adopted by the couple. Soon after, they added a five-year-old girl to the family.
However, the more Bullock learned about the foster care system, the more it troubled her.
"I was unsettled by how easy it is to obtain government resources for spaceborne missions and how hard it is to obtain resources for these humans, these little people that are in peril," she said.
She knew she could help to make a bigger impact.
"I decided that I needed to take some time and do something in this realm, that these little people were really, really important," she said.
Bullock was already skilled in grant writing, project management and data analysis - skills that can make an organization both successful and efficient.
So, in 2016, she founded Tidewater Friends of Foster Care, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and resources for foster children.
TFFC provides outreach to recruit foster families and offers academic tutoring and extracurricular activities for the children.
The regional need was so great, that the nonprofit - which originally served only Norfolk - has expanded to Chesapeake, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.
In addition to running the day-to-day work at the TFFC, Bullock also serves as the parent representative on the Norfolk Community Policy Management Team and on the board of the Old Dominion Athletics Foundation and the ODU Fundraising Initiative Leadership Committee.
Bullock was honored to be recognized for her service. "It's incredibly humbling," she said. "The work I do now is much different than what I graduated from in at ODU. But it's really meaningful work and to be acknowledged for that work is deeply moving to me."
When it comes to civic leadership, Johnny Garcia is on board.
Garcia, in fact, is on countless boards.
He serves on the boards of the Hampton Roads Workforce Council, the Portsmouth Partnership, STARBASE Victory, Boys and Girls Club, Communities in Schools and the Portsmouth Police Department PAL Program.
He is also vice chair at the Hampton Roads Chamber, president/chair at Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), president of ODU's Batten College of Engineering & Technology Executive Advisory Board and president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Coastal Virginia.
For Garcia, community service is his "compass."
"My purpose is to be the difference maker in the personal, family, professional lives of enough people to make a positive difference in the world," he explained.
Garcia is founder and CEO of SimIS Inc., a local and highly successful modeling and simulation and cybersecurity company.
Garcia will be recognized with the ODU Distinguished Alumni Award.
"This award is such a great honor, and it solidifies my service to our ODU community."
"As a very active alumni, I am so proud of what we have created at ODU," he said. "The future is great for our community, for industry collaboration and opportunities for our students and faculty."
Growing up, Garcia couldn't be farther from the world of technology.
As the son of Mexican migrant workers, Garcia's first job - even before he was a teenager - was working in the cotton fields with his family in Lubbock, Texas.
A five-year stint in the Navy led him on the track to education and introduced him to the world of modeling and simulation.
It also gave him a permanent home in Hampton Roads with his wife of 32 years, Lorena, and his 16-year-old twin daughters, Hope and Faith.
Garcia worked for over a dozen years in the industry, working his way to up chief technical officer at General Dynamics before founding SimIS Inc. in 2007.
Less than two years before SimIS Inc., he had entered the computational modeling and simulation doctoral program at the Batten College of Engineering and Technology.
"The importance of my experience at ODU is one of the reasons for my success," he said. "A new research center at the VMASC provided me the platform to create SimIS Inc., my first company, and gave me the tools and skills needed to make my ventures successful."
"The experience at ODU was life changing," he said.
Today, he pays back those who helped him along the way. Garcia is noted for hiring both ODU graduates and veterans. A recent Virginian-Pilot article noted that more than 85% of SimIS Inc., employees are veterans.
"We have to be involved in our community and ODU is my community," he said. The main reason a community is successful is because we look out for our own."
Garcia can often be found playing golf with his twin daughters Hope and Faith - who he claims are great golfers - presenting lectures on the importance of education, diversity and entrepreneurship and passing on words of wisdom from a lifetime of experience.