Editor’s note – This article is one of a series of feature stories from Southern State Community College highlighting alumni and the specific degree programs they completed.
As a youngster growing up on a farm in the Lynchburg area, Seth Walker probably did not expect he would be instrumental in the process of repairing and manufacturing aircraft components just a year into his 20s — but thanks to resources from the local community college and a lot of elbow grease, that’s exactly the way it went.
Walker, 21, is now a process engineer at StandardAero, where he repairs and manufactures aircraft components and develops automation systems.
Walker was only 15 when he started studying electro-mechanical engineering at Southern State Community College, inspired to enter the field by work he had done on the farm.
“I was born and raised on a farm, so I’ve kind of had a thing for toying around with electrical and mechanical things,” Walker said.
At the time, his sister was teaching at Southern State and he had other connections at the college, which also happened to be a short drive from Lynchburg. Walker said his biggest challenge was working around his high school schedule, but he made it work.
“Other than that, it wasn’t too hard for me,” he said, adding that his education was almost entirely paid for by the College Credit Plus program.
Walker graduated high school in 2016, and in 2017, he graduated from Southern State with his first associate’s degree. When Walker turned 18, SSCC had just begun its co-op program, and he landed a job at Candle-Lite in Leesburg as an electronic technician.
Two years later, he enrolled in a partnership program with Miami University to obtain his bachelor’s degree and got a job at PAS Technology in Hillsboro.
“It has its ups and downs,” he said. “I miss the electrical stuff, but recently I’ve been getting into more lean manufacturing, so I’ve developed some automation systems.”
Jim Barnett, assistant professor of engineering, who runs the Mechanical Design Technology, Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology and Aviation Maintenance programs at the college, said his students get invaluable hands-on experience in both the classroom and the workplace thanks to new machines and internship opportunities.
Thanks to a recent grant, Barnett’s programs boast a variety of new CNC machines, including automatic and manual mills and lathes and a plasma cutter on a water table.
“When you do an internship or a co-op, you get on-the-job experience,” Barnett said, “so you don’t just graduate, you get a year or two of experience. Internships and co-ops really alleviate the problem of graduating with no experience.”
Barnett said the fields his students enter are diverse.
“A lot of my mechanical design technology students can go into product development,” he said. “Lots of local businesses are looking for somebody to do their custom projects.”
Mason Fence is one company with customized needs, Barnett said, and representatives often come to the college looking for internship candidates – and if a student can land an internship, they have good chances at getting a job even before they graduate.
“If you can get one of those internships and they like you and you show your willingness to learn, chances are they’re going to offer you a job even without a degree,” Barnett said. “We’ve had lots of students who have been hired on full-time prior to graduation.”
Barnett said he has more internship and co-op opportunities than students at this point.
“I need more students,” he said. “We’re wondering if anybody is interested in a day program, since our night program is so successful, but second- and third-shift people don’t have the same opportunity to take classes because they’re at work or getting ready to work.”
Barnett said he loves what he does.
“The guys that were around 20 years ago gave me the opportunity I needed,” Barnett said. “I wasn’t the greatest student in the world, so they kind of grabbed me by the back of the shirt collar and guided me through my associate’s degree… I guess I’m just trying to give that back to the next generation.”
Walker encouraged those who do not have a degree to consider looking into it.
“Just because you think you can’t afford college doesn’t mean you can’t go,” he said. “If you do your research, look at places like Southern State and see who they might have agreements with and you can get scholarships. You can do just about anything as long as you put time and effort in.”
For more information about Southern State’s Engineering Program, visit www.sscc.edu or email Jim Barnett at [email protected]
David Wright is a local journalist and freelance writer.