Pat LeDuc of Owings Mills, Maryland, graduated high school and immediately joined the workforce as a computer numerical control (CNC) machinist. After almost ten years in that career, he decided he wanted to make a change. He began taking classes at a local community college toward an associate level certificate and then a two-year engineering associate degree designed to transfer to a four-year college. In 2016, he graduated with his associate degree. However, as a nontraditional student with full-time career responsibilities, he wasn’t sure how he could reach his dream of earning a bachelor’s in Engineering.
“When I was close to graduating from my community college, the advisers didn’t have a lot of good advice as to what someone in my situation could do,” Pat said. According to the advisers, most people who finish the two-year program quit their jobs to pursue their bachelor’s through traditional, full-time college classes. “That wasn’t an option for me. I have a job and career, a mortgage, a car payment — all that stuff. I was kind of at a loss.”
Pat researched his options. He found a few in-state schools that offered bachelor’s degrees in Engineering, but they all would require him to commute to campus for classes at times that were incompatible with his work and family life. “So I started Googling ‘online bachelor’s in Engineering,’ and that’s how I found Alabama.”
The University of Alabama wasn’t the only option to earn his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (BSME) in an online or hybrid format, but he quickly determined it was the best. “There was one other option, but it was at least three times as expensive and wasn’t nearly as flexible,” Pat explained. The alternative option would require summer trips to North Dakota lasting three weeks to complete labs, and as he put it, that was “not a good option.” In Fall 2016, Pat began working on his BSME from UA in a hybrid format that accommodated his needs.
Pat said Sarah Weaver, the program’s former adviser, was critical to his success. “With the BSME program, they don’t offer all the classes every semester, so you really have to make sure you have the entire thing mapped out on the front end, and she went through everything and gave me three different options for how I could finish in different timeframes. She was amazing,” he said. Pat said Dr. Beth Todd also provided valuable support throughout his time in the program. “She’s a good teacher and helps out in a ton of ways.”
UA’s promise of flexibility was what caught Pat’s eye from the beginning, and he said the program held up its end of the deal. He enjoyed his option to “go to class” whenever he needed – and from the comfort of his own home with no commute. He and his wife even went on a Disney cruise in the middle of a semester and he didn’t fall behind. He brought his laptop with him and was able to work ahead before the cruise, complete some reading during it, and catch up on lectures after. “With normal school, I would’ve been out of luck on a cruise!”
The online BSME program at UA requires some campus visits so students can complete lab requirements to practice the skills they learn in class. “Most programs will have students doing one lab per week or maybe every other week, but to accommodate distance students, we would do five labs in one day, so we only had to travel two to three weekends of the semester.” Held on UA’s main campus as well as the UA Gadsden Center, these in-person meetings provided unique face time with classmates that online students sometimes miss out on. During one of the labs, Pat met a fellow Maryland resident, Manar Abdelbaky, whose name he recognized from knowing her husband through work. “It’s funny we’re both from Maryland but the first time we met was sitting at a lab table together in Gadsden, Alabama.”
Pat’s employer, Jacobs Engineering, has been supportive of his educational journey. “They’re big on professional development and setting goals for yourself, so I told my manager that when I graduated, I’d like to be promoted to an engineer, and he was on board with that.” The company has also reimbursed tuition expenses under the agreement that Pat earn the grade of B or better. In May 2020, he finished his degree, and within two weeks of the semester’s end, his job changed to engineer. “I didn’t even have my degree in hand yet, but they went ahead and promoted me.”
“It’s been a ten-plus-year journey. It’s not for the faint of heart. You’ve got to be a self-starter and willing to motivate yourself. But I’ve got my degree now, and I’m proud to say I’ve achieved my goal.”
Published: September 3rd, 2020