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December 12, 2019

With perseverance, first-generation engineering student lands degree, dream job

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As he was finishing up at Verona Area High School and planning for his future, Will Carstens set out to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer in the aerospace industry.

Will Carstens
Will Carstens. Submitted photo.

That dream was nearly derailed by tragedy and hardships, but Carstens persevered, determined to be the first person in his family to graduate from college.

UW-Madison was his top pick due to its highly respected and rigorous engineering programs.

“Growing up with a single mom, there wasn’t money for college and I knew I would have to pay for school all by myself,” he says. “So I figured I’d start off at Madison College to earn some credits and save money, then transfer to UW-Madison.”

But soon after he began his first semester at Madison College in the fall of 2012, his mom was killed in a car crash with a drunken driver. The tragic loss sent Carstens reeling. “It was all a blur for me, and I was having a really hard time,” he says. “I was an only child with a single mom, and with her gone, I had to grow up fast.”

He dropped some classes, and then took the next semester off to regroup and earn money to support himself. He got a job working at a lumberyard full time, and then reenrolled at Madison College in September 2013, fitting classes in around his work schedule.

When he reenrolled at Madison College, he switched into the mechanical design technology program. As he neared completion of that two-year technical program, he considered giving up on his original goal of an engineering bachelor’s degree given the challenges he was dealing with.

“But then I thought, I should keep pushing. I’m not going to give up on this,” he says.

However, by taking time off from Madison College and switching his program, he was disqualified from the transfer blueprint program that he originally signed up for his first semester. That program would have guaranteed his admission to the UW-Madison mechanical engineering program so long as he stayed enrolled in the transfer program and held a cumulative 3.0 GPA.

Undeterred, Carstens dove into the application process for the UW-Madison College of Engineering. He was accepted into the mechanical engineering program at UW-Madison in September 2016.

In his first semester at UW-Madison, he joined the college’s hybrid vehicle team (now the Wisconsin Formula SAE Autonomous Team). “Being on that team was a huge learning curve for me,” he says. “It was amazing to see how talented and passionate the students on the team were, and how much they cared about what they were designing, and it inspired me to want to learn as much as I could from them.”

His hands-on work with the team opened Carstens’ eyes to the wealth of resources available for engineering students to design and build their own creations, including the makerspace and student shop facilities.

He took the initiative to learn how to use a variety of fabrication equipment, including laser cutters and 3D printers, and he found that these tools enhanced his understanding of concepts he was learning in class.

“I learn better when I can physically make something, feel it in my hands, and then actually test it, versus just reading about it in a textbook,” he says. “I think one of the best things about UW-Madison is all of the opportunities that are available here, including many opportunities for engineering students to design and make stuff.”

He says Engineering Career Services also played a crucial role in his success, giving him guidance on his resume and helping him land exciting internships and co-ops.

His co-op was at Collins Aerospace, one of the world’s largest suppliers of advanced aerospace and defense products. “As I worked there, I learned so much about the industry past and future. It reinforced that I want to work in aerospace engineering,” he says. “It also gave me some experience in what it’s like to work as an engineer in industry, which was valuable.”

After he graduates with his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in December 2019, Carstens is excited to start his career as an engineer at Williams International, a small jet engine manufacturer located in Pontiac, Michigan—realizing the dream he started working toward seven years ago.

Looking back, Carstens says that his UW-Madison engineering education surpassed his initial expectations by extending beyond technical know-how and also preparing him for success as a well-rounded professional.

“I learned all these valuable skills, like how to effectively communicate in teams and time management, that I didn’t realize I’d be much better at after an engineering degree,” he says.