First graduates emerge from NIU/RVC engineering partnership

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An educational partnership celebrates a major milestone that’s been years in the making. 

Nicole Gould is one of the first three students to earn her Engineering Bachelor’s Degree from Northern Illinois University on the campus of Rock Valley College.

“I enjoyed being able to get my Associate’s Degree and my Bachelor’s Degree in the same building, because I already knew the campus,” said Nicole Gould, a graduate of NIU/RVC Engineering. “I already knew my way around and I knew some of the friendly faces.”

Nicole said it wasn’t easy.

“I would go to work a full eight hour day, sometimes longer,” she said. “And then, when work was over, I’d come and sit in school until 8 o’clock at night, and then I’d go home and do it all over again.”

As much as the program is hard work for students, it was also tough for the partnership to take shape.

The idea to partner NIU and RVC started four years ago, to satisfy a local need.

“We got higher education, industry, community leaders in a room and said, ‘What are we going to do about this looming engineering workforce shortage?” said Dr. Rena Cotsones, the Associate Vice President for Outreach and Engagement for Northern Illinois University.

According to one estimate, about 25 percent of the region’s mechanical engineering workforce will retire soon. That’s why Sagar Patel, President of Aircraft Turbine Systems at Woodward, was there from the beginning.

His company, one of the biggest in the area, needs those engineers. Woodward was the main contributor to the campaign to raise $7.5 million to renovate classrooms and labs at RVC. The manufacturer’s name is on the building – the Woodward Technology Center. 

“That’s one of the deliberate things we’ve done. We did not want to have Woodward or UTC be the spotlight companies,” Patel explained. “We wanted to make sure all the companies locally benefit. And 40 interns at 25 local companies proves that we meant it and it’s working very well, for local companies to get the internship and pipeline of talent for their own benefit as well.”

Those internships happen during the program. Organizers call it an ‘earn as you learn’ opportunity.

Kelly Cooper, Executive Director of Engineering Our Future, said, “Students being able to achieve a bachelor’s degree for under $40,000 and also the idea of being able to work in an internship opportunity while they’re attending school. So, the idea of graduating with much less student loans is really important.”

That’s not the only advantage Gould is excited about. She says it goes beyond education or affordability.

“Go for it,” she said. “Put your all in. It will benefit you in the long run. You will learn so much about technology, about life, about how to manage your time and communication. Anything. This will help you develop your better self.”

Gould recently accepted a job working for UTC Aerospace Systems. And, she’s getting married in the Fall. It’s a big year for the Byron High School graduate.

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