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Photo of John Koller
May 10, 2019

For veteran, persistence and plenty of number-crunching added up to an engineering degree

Written By: Adam Malecek


Looking back, John Koller is amazed at what he has been able to achieve over the past five years as an undergraduate, especially given where he started out.

After serving in the Marines for 12 years, he enrolled, at age 30, as a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

“I’ve been interested in engineering since high school, and the opportunity to design and make things for a living was really appealing to me,” he says.

Koller, from Marshfield, Wisconsin, says he was drawn to UW-Madison because he could get a world-class engineering education while also being closer to family in the state.

But while attending freshman orientation, the reality of the academic challenge before him set in. Koller had joined the Marines right out of high school and hadn’t taken a math class in more than a decade when he arrived on campus.

“I was at orientation taking the math placement exam and it was clear I’d forgotten how to do all this math,” he says.

So he registered for Math 101, an introductory math class that nearly all UW-Madison engineering freshmen place out of. He recalls the advisors at orientation asking if he wanted to retake the placement exam to try to qualify for a more advanced course. “And I just said, ‘Nope, I forgot it all and need to relearn it all. Just start me off at the bottom.’ And so that was the start of the journey,” he says.

In other words, Koller was undaunted. Coming out of the military, he was highly motivated to succeed and was confident in his abilities. He rolled up his sleeves and dug in, regularly taking summer courses to catch up on his engineering requirements.

“I naturally want to succeed, and I’m also a bit stubborn,” he says. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going down. Regardless of what I’m up against, I’m going to get through it,’ and that’s what kept pushing me forward.”

Koller says his engineering education really started to click as he was taking Thermodynamics (ME 361). “I think it’s a fascinating subject and that course really motivated me and reaffirmed my decision to pursue engineering,” he says.

He credited the course’s instructor, Kristofer Dressler, with bringing the material to life with his engaging teaching style. “I really appreciated how he would relate what we were learning in class to tangible, real-world problems,” Koller says.

Koller went on to complete a nine-month, full-time co-op at Sub-Zero, where he developed methods for testing components and conducted data analysis to help automate processes. He says the co-op gave him a valuable hands-on learning experience as he applied his engineering education to real industry challenges.

All of his hard work has paid off, as Koller is graduating with his bachelor’s degree in May 2019. “It has been a struggle to get here, and it means a lot to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree from UW-Madison,” he says. “It has been an amazing experience working with the faculty and students here.”

Barry Crook, an assistant department manager in mechanical engineering, says Koller’s perseverance was remarkable. “He came to SOAR (student orientation, advising and registration) two weeks after getting out the Marines and hit the ground running,” Crook says. “I personally don’t think I’ve even seen another student start in Math 101 and graduate from mechanical engineering. They just generally don’t make it. And John has done quite well academically, which isn’t easy.”

Koller already has a job lined up; he will join Milwaukee Tool and work on designing power tools. “It’s a product line I’m very interested in and a company I think I’ll enjoy working for,” he says. “I’m excited to be able to stay in Wisconsin as I launch this next step in my career.”