With the ink just about dry on his Western 2018 diploma, the message came through loud and clear for College of Aviation alumnus Thomas Souder -- to keep your industry and alma mater vital and productive, you must lend a helping hand to those who come after you.
Souder admits that it wasn't easy for the Stillwater, Minn., native to add his name to the roster of alumni. He remembers, when preparing for tests in key credentials in his major of aviation technical operations, "studying like crazy for months," making himself something of a pain by asking "just about everybody to help me run through my flashcards." It wasn't unusual "to lock myself in my room for hours" to get his brain and knowledge up to top speed. Souder says it turned out to be worth "every moment of effort."
"Just about everybody" included his classmate colleagues, all of his instructors with Nathan Lisak at the top of the list, and his contact with College of Aviation alumni. "I really appreciated their willingness to engage with current students," Souder says about the latter. "Whether the alumni were teaching me in classes, assisting our programs financially, or promoting their careers and employers at career fairs, they helped me make the most of my time at Western. They kept me focused on my career goals."
Souder says the commitment of the College of Aviation faculty -- and the alumni they have produced for the aviation industry -- together made his undergraduate days successful. It is what he wants to mirror since starting his professional life in Lafayette, Ind., with the General Electric LEAP (Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion) program, whose goal is to make aircraft engines even better and more fuel-efficient.
Souder believes all of his instructors were incredibly helpful in pushing him to be professional and "a better mechanic," whether the skill was sheet-metal bending, riveting, or interpreting maintenance manuals. "I was taught to be professional and a person of character," he says.
Again, he says, there were bumpy rides along the way. More than a few of his courses measured high on the stress meter. Due course papers and final exams were routine challenges, but not quite on the scale of making certain that an airliner is fit and ready to fly every day. Instructors realized these kinds of campus challenges prepped students like Souder for what they would face on the job. Those late nights in Waldo Library were part of the investment. Favorite classes such as the "Summer Servicing" course eased the process a bit.
Now that he's made a safe landing in his career, would he recommend it to somebody else? "That would be a wise choice," Souder says.
How did he get from Mahtomedi High in Stillwater to a place with another strange name -- Kalamazoo? "I wanted a career that was hands-on and mechanical in nature," he says. "A family friend who worked for Delta convinced me that aviation offered a really interesting career path." That career path started to be charted by serving as a College of Aviation ambassador and then interning in fleet maintenance.
It didn't take long for Souder to realize that the College of Aviation resembled a family atmosphere that came packed with all kinds of interesting people, from fondly remembered classmates to lab techs to managers. In addition to his diploma, he came through it all with "cherished relationships. All share a passion for aviation and an excitement to be part of a challenging industry."
Rounding out his resume were the student organizations with which he was affiliated. One broadly based experience was serving as a Western Student Association senator for a week.
A large part of his duties at GE LEAP is logistical in nature. Souder enjoys organizing manpower, materials and shipment dates for engines. Because of his Western experience, he strives to devise even better methods and strategies. In his rear-view mirror these days are passing those "final" final exams, landing the first "real" job, and moving to a new state. However, one factor has not changed. "It will be important for me," he says, "to pay it forward as I remember where I came from. I always keep in mind that how I perform in my job is a reflection of where I came from. I represent Western every day."
So far, so good. "I love my flexible work schedule and being part of a great team of colleagues," Souder says. "It is exciting to have a hands-on job and working with some of the most advanced technology in the world."
It is not boring. Dealing with a question on the flow of materials, troubleshooting a problem or figuring out an out-of-balance compressor, "I find myself," Souder says, "constantly using the skillsets I acquired in my aviation courses at WMU."
Another bonus for Souder is living near where he works and operating in a flexible environment. "I am able to come in for a couple of hours on Sunday to catch up on a few things from the previous week," he says, "and to prep for what lies ahead."
Souder retains fond memories of Western Michigan University, especially the fall semester with the leaves turning, home football games, and the thrill of students being able to begin their flight training as epitomized by the roar of engines as planes take off and land.
Souder says he looks forward to continuing to engage with the College of Aviation through its strong extracurricular programs such as SkillsUSA. "I want to give back to the College of Aviation as much as it gave me," Souder says.
"WMU forges its alumni to lead by example," the rookie aviation mechanic says, "which they pay back to students and steer them toward professional success. Those alumni give current students reachable dreams."
Tom Souder wants to be on the roster of that Dream Team.