Nov 15, 2010
Wired for Success: Making His Own Future
Thom Willecke’s eagerness to learn led him to design his own major—and earn a new career in the electronics field.
It didn’t take Tim Meredith long to realize he should hire Thom Willecke as a communications technician earlier this year. Meredith, the president of Wire Technologies, a Kaukauna-based communications contractor, knew when he reviewed Willecke’s resume that he would be an asset to the company. “It was a very easy decision,” Meredith says.
What he saw on Willecke’s resume was an associate degree as an Electrical Communication Systems Specialist from Fox Valley Technical College, plus 11 specialized certificates that Willecke earned in the course of creating his own degree at the college. Three of those—Electronic Communication and Data Cabling, Fiber-Optic Cabling/Devices, and Telecommunications Field Service, are directly related to the job he was applying for at Wire Technologies. But the rest were just as impressive to Meredith.
“Thom had the necessary skills to help us out tremendously,”
Meredith says. “His wealth of experience would be a benefit. There are few people who can cross over and work in both cabling and networking. That was definitely a selling point when we brought him on.”
Willecke knew he wouldn’t find a job that completely incorporated all 11 of his certificates. But he also thought that whatever he did and wherever he worked, the variety of knowledge and experience would serve him well.
Turns out he was right. “All of my training at Fox Valley Tech has impacted me,” Willecke says. “There are bits and pieces from all of the courses that I use on my job. Some things are not exactly part of what I do daily, but they are part of the environment that surrounds me.”
Defining a Degree
Willecke’s customized degree program came about when he was denied a financial aid award because he didn’t have a declared degree. He was taking a full load of classes and working toward a number of certificates that sounded interesting to him, but none of them counted toward an established associate degree. “I didn’t figure that out until my award came back indicating zero dollars,” Willecke says. “Then someone I was working with in Enrollment Services (at FVTC) suggested I try to create a degree out of the classes I was taking.”
Willecke met with a counselor, who recommended that he pursue an individualized technical studies
degree. Together, they developed a proposal that showed how the various certificate programs he was enrolled in would result in employable skills. Willecke then had to find someone in the workforce to review the proposal and acknowledge its feasibility. In addition, he had to share it with several people on campus, including the department chair of the engineering-related programs. That process, he says, helped him visualize his future more clearly. “It was the icing on the cake,” he says. “It allowed me to transition my mindset from just completing certificates to realizing that this is actually what I want to do.”
His initiative impressed many instructors. “It’s very unusual for a student to design a program like this,” says Brenda Wilz, an Information Technology instructor and the advisor for the FVTC chapter of the Association for Information Technology Professionals (AITP). “What Thom did was amazing. He now has a unique combination of skills and a much broader background than most students. He developed a clear plan of what he wanted to do, and he put it together in a way that would be most beneficial to him and anyone fortunate to employ him.”
Willecke completed 29 credits in one semester, far exceeding full-time status as a student. Despite this load, he excelled academically. “He had a very heavy workload, but he was always a top student,” says Gary Herlache, an Electronics Technology instructor who had Willecke in several classes. “He was driven to learn and do the best in everything he did.”
That included his involvement in AITP. Willecke was part of a team that twice took first place in the nation in the organization’s National Collegiate Conference Graphic Communications competition—topping teams from such schools as the University of Texas, Purdue University, and more from across the country. “We earned an award in just about every category,” Wilz says. “It was a great event; I had to pinch myself many times because I was so proud of our remarkable students.”
As important as the recognition was to Willecke and others, both he and Wilz agree that hands-on learning is a leading reason that FVTC can compete with four-year institutions in collegiate conferences. It speaks to the high-quality education available at FVTC, Willecke says, and discredits the notion that two-year schools are inferior to four-year colleges.
“People from other colleges approached us and asked how they could transfer to Fox Valley Tech,” says Wilz. “It was quite impressive.”
So is what Willecke has done, both while at FVTC and since he’s graduated.