New RVC-NIU link keep students close to home

Chronicle Media
The “2+2” agreement between Rock Valley College and Northern Illinois University allows flexibility for nontraditional students.

The “2+2” agreement between Rock Valley College and Northern Illinois University allows flexibility for nontraditional students.

Shawn Wade spent three years working on an assembly line in Rockton. The shifts were long – 10 or 11 hours a day, five or more days a week. But the company’s future seemed bright.

“They had four years of record sales in a row. Everything was good. But after the fourth year, they didn’t get the sales they expected, and they started laying people off,” Wade says. “I was one of the lower men on the totem pole. I got cut.”

Fortunately, those three years of manual labor, standing on a hard, concrete floor, had offered plenty of time to think.

“I realized I was smarter than this,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘I need to get paid for using my brain instead of my body so much.’ ”

Although his company helped its employees pay for college tuition, few could take advantage of the program while also working up to 65 hours a week and raising families.

Part of Wade’s severance package included money for a year of higher education, however. “I said, ‘Well, there’s no time like now.’ I was laid off in April and started courses at Rock Valley in June.”

With no distinct path in mind, he took an online test that determines career aptitude. The computer suggested engineering.

“I started reading about it, and thinking about it more, and it actually made a ton of sense,” he says. “I’ve always been into tinkering, and taking things apart and figuring out how they work. I’ve been racing BMX since I was 15, and I always did my own bike repairs. I’m just really interested in how things work.”

He switched his course of study from the general associate degree to RVC’s associate degree in Engineering Science. A longtime “2+2” agreement between Rock Valley and Northern Illinois University meant he could easily continue into NIU’s program were he willing to commute to DeKalb.

One problem, though. He wasn’t.

“I’m going to be 30 in November. I have a wife and a 10-year-old daughter, and I own my home,” he says. “I can’t relocate. I can’t move into a dorm. I can’t drive back and forth to DeKalb. It wouldn’t be possible.”

Life was already looking up, though.

Eighteen months into his RVC studies, he found an internship at SPX FLOW, Inc. in Rockford, where he’s still working as a drafter. Engineers bring him designs, he enters them into the computer, engineers mark up the prints with red pens, he makes changes in the computer and then both sign off.

His two-year degree is good enough to continue doing that, so Wade made plans to halt his higher education when he completed those requirements next spring.

That’s not to say he didn’t dream of pursuing the life of professional licensed engineer. He wanted to design things. Life just didn’t permit it.

But an Aug. 24 post on a local TV station’s Facebook page, one about the new NIU-RVC Engineering Program, changed everything.

“This is actually a monumental announcement that will greatly affect me,” Wade wrote in a comment. “This program will now make it possible for me to get my bachelor’s. Great news.”

And what will that mean for his family?

“The pay increase between being a drafter and an entry-level engineer is probably 20 grand a year. It’s huge,” he says. “And being a drafter is a cap. Being an engineer, you can go to being a design engineer to being a senior design engineer. You have the potential to go up and up and up.”

Wade, obviously, is sold on his career choice.

“I couldn’t fathom a world that doesn’t have engineers,” he says. “Pretty much everything you can think of that’s been manmade has been touched by an engineer at some point. If you look at a Bic pen, it took a material engineer to figure out what plastic they wanted to use, how thick the wall for the tube needed to be, the diameter of the tube … a ton of engineering goes into it.”

Bob Guirl, director of strategy and development for Electrical Systems at UTC Aerospace Systems in Rockford, counts his company among those that need a steady supply of fresh talent like Wade.

“One reason for the durability of engineering careers is that STEM skills can be broadly applied, even beyond traditional ‘STEM careers’ When science, technology, engineering and math and engineering are taught well, they build students’ curiosity of how the world works and their intellectual capability to create new products and processes that continually improve the current condition,” says Guirl, whose company is the largest aerospace systems supplier in the world.

“The STEM skillset can be applied to various fields: management, finance, IT, medicine, politics – the list is nearly endless. All rely on an ability to design, analyze, test and continually improve,” he adds. “We need these skills in our northern Illinois region; they drive progress.”

Promod Vohra, dean of Northern Illinois University’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, and his colleagues in academia understand their critical marching orders.

“We as a community – as stakeholders – need to make sure that we collectively educate our young people, nurture their young minds and give them the information to make them successful in their careers,” he says. “We must create a community of excellence and grow our own talent.”

He routinely gives high school students five good reasons to enroll in his college.

“Engineering pays well. Engineers are in demand. It’s an exciting field – you’re always working on tomorrow’s problems, not today’s. It provides a social perception of being intelligent and a contributing member of society,” he says. “And it’s a globally portable field: A degree earned in one country is acceptable in all parts of the world.”






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