Architectural engineering alumni create student support fund


By Gabrielle Stewart

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — College can be costly. Beyond the anticipated rates of tuition and housing, students may have unexpected expenses, from repairing a car to an extra charge for enhanced educational experiences. To support students in such circumstances, Helen and Rob Diemer decided to use their annual gift to Penn State this year to create the self-named Student Emergency Fund in the Department of Architectural Engineering. 

“We try to give to causes that are important to us and have had a major impact on the life of our family,” Rob said. “And Penn State has had a major impact on our lives.”

Helen and Rob, who both earned their bachelor of architectural engineering degrees from Penn State in 1981, said that the architectural engineering department was integral to their growth — and with their $25,000 endowment, the couple wants to return the favor.

“Being graduates of the architectural engineering program at Penn State gave us a good foundation for success in our careers,” said Helen, president and principal of The Lighting Practice, an architectural lighting design firm. “We were given not only a knowledge base but also a network that has helped us advance and succeed. We feel strongly about giving that opportunity back to people who are following behind us at Penn State.”

Originally from the Philadelphia area, Helen and Rob both enrolled in the architectural engineering program’s environmental systems option. Helen credits John Flynn, her adviser and a professor of architectural engineering who died in 1980, with helping her discover lighting as a field. 

“Lighting impacts how you experience places and influences your emotions of a space,” Helen said. “Professor Flynn, who was passionate about it, got me excited about the topic and helped me understand there was a career doing lighting design.”

Rob dreamed of being an architect but related more to an engineer, he said, and found that architectural engineering accommodated both. His time as a student gave him opportunities to learn about various aspects of building design and to collaborate with students, faculty and numerous stakeholders, he said. 

“Architectural engineers are in a unique position between architects and engineers, firms and stakeholders,” Rob said. “The architectural engineering program attracts people predisposed to that role — helping people understand each other.”

Both engineers had an opportunity to study at the University of Leeds during their fourth year at Penn State — which would later factor into their decision to create the fund.

“The exchange program was a great experience for me and gave me the chance to travel Europe in the summer following my term at Leeds,” Helen said. “Rob didn’t have the option of doing that due to the cost. It made us realize that for many students the opportunity is at their doorstep, but they don’t have the money to make it happen. Some extra money could allow a student to have that experience.”

Upon graduating from Penn State, Helen and Rob started work at a consulting engineering firm in Minneapolis. The couple later moved to New York City where they held numerous positions, including at the Flack + Kurtz engineering firm where Helen worked as director of lighting design services and Rob as an associate principal. Later, Helen began working at The Lighting Practice, becoming a principal in 1996 and majority owner in 2009 before rising to her current role. Rob worked at the AKF engineering firm starting in 1992, eventually becoming a partner and member of the executive committee before retiring in 2020.

In addition to the emergency fund, the Diemers have made other gifts to the department and the College of Engineering Future Fund. They have also donated to the Fleisher Art Memorial, Philabundance and Project HOME, all based in Philadelphia.

“Emergency student support gifts like this are life-changing for our students," said Sez Atamturktur Russcher, Harry and Arlene Schell Professor and Head of the Department of Architectural Engineering. “Thanks to the support of our alumni, several students who were faced with deciding between education and other life expenses were able to continue pursuing their degrees. Helen and Rob’s gift helps our students avoid such difficult decisions and feel more financially secure as they work to build their own careers.” 

Atamturktur Russcher also noted that the Diemers’ contributions extend beyond monetary support. 

“Helen and Rob wonderfully represent the successful careers an architectural engineering degree from Penn State leads to,” Atamturktur Russcher said. “Helen is a stand-out leader on our department’s Industrial Professional Advisory Council, bringing fresh perspectives and innovative ideas to our faculty to keep our lighting and electrical curriculum relevant to real-world experience. We are very grateful of their support, both professionally and financially.”

This gift will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit


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