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Site-Based Engineering Program Benefits Eastern North Carolina Workforce

NC State is committed to offering high-quality education no matter the delivery mode. Two students graduating from the Mechanical Engineering Systems (MES) site-based degree program in Havelock, North Carolina, are experiencing that first hand. 

Daniel Colwell and Michael Crawford are two of the 12-person class earning their degrees this May. Both credit the cohort-based program and their passionate faculty members with helping them navigate the difficult concepts, projects and papers. 

Bill Fortney, eastern N.C. regional director of engineering and teaching assistant professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE), describes how the site-based program got its start. 

“NC State’s site-based Bachelor of Science in Engineering program with a concentration in Mechanical Engineering Systems (MES) started in 2004 after two MAE alumni — Chris Holder and Dennis West — approached the College of Engineering with their need for a local engineering program focused on Department of Defense work done at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point,” Fortney says. 

“Their vision was to ‘grow their own engineers’ by having a program that would permit current non-degreed employees an option to pursue a degree in engineering without having to quit their current jobs and leave the area. The College of Engineering saw this vision as supporting the mission of NC State as a land-grant institution and a unique partnership between NC State and Craven Community College was formed,” he adds. 

Both Colwell and Crawford are exemplifying this vision. 

Colwell is currently an engineering technician at Tandemloc, a design and manufacturing company, where he will transition into a full-time engineering position upon graduation. 

For Crawford, his engineering degree will jumpstart his career in the industry. He is currently working as an engineering trainee with the Fleet Readiness Center East within the Department of Defense, NAVAIR, located on Cherry Point. Upon graduation, he will move into a permanent engineering position with the organization. 

Prior to joining the program, Crawford served our country as a Marine Raider. When he began the process of being medically retired from the Marine Corps in 2015, Crawford searched for his next move. That’s where the site-based engineering degree program comes in. Programs like this one and many others at NC state serve our veterans by helping them begin the next chapter of their lives. 

Since in-person graduations have been altered due to COVID-19, the MES graduating class is holding a drive-in graduation on May 9. Family and friends will drive up and stay in their vehicles while the 12-person graduating class walks up one by one to receive their diploma. While in their cars, graduates and attendees will join a Zoom call and listen to the graduation address delivered by former MAE department head, Richard Gould

We caught up with Colwell and Crawford to learn more about their experiences in the site-based MES program and congratulate our #NCStateOnline spring 2020 graduates! 

Daniel Colwell


Tell us your story. Why did you pursue the Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree with a concentration in Mechanical Engineering Systems (MES)?

After working at Tandemloc as CNC machinist/programmer and tool/fixture designer for over a decade, I was approached by the owners of the company about an opportunity for advancement into the engineering department. I was being offered an eventual position as a mechanical engineer at Tandemloc if I could figure out a way to get the degree.

Daniel Colwell pictured smiling standing in front of a wall with his arms crossed.
Daniel Colwell

I happened to have Dr. Fortney’s business card in my toolbox from a tour he had been a part of some time before. During that tour of Tandemloc, Dr. Fortney had stopped and talked to me briefly about the engineering program at the Havelock campus. I was not really interested at that time because I had only recently finished two associate degrees in machining and going back to school was the last thing I wanted to do. Now, with a new career opportunity before me, I was very interested in the program. I met with him at his office after a short phone call, and I began taking classes a month later over the summer semester.

I worked out an agreement with Tandemloc that allowed me to still support my family while taking classes during the day as they were normally offered. Getting the education I needed for this new career would have been impossible if the Havelock program did not exist. I was able to get from work to school in less than five minutes thanks to the location of the campus. This allowed me to still remain a productive employee at Tandemloc while working on the degree.

Describe your experience in the MES program. 

I had a great experience. It was very challenging, but never really unreasonable. I felt more like a part of a team than simply a student. There was a family-like atmosphere in most classrooms and we all became pretty close because of the smaller size of the classes and the fact that we all took the same classes. We studied together, worked on projects together, and talked about our mistakes after tests and homeworks were graded. I truly feel like I would not have been as successful in the program if I had to do it alone. In addition to having a great group of committed peers to walk this journey with me, I always felt like my instructors were experts in their respective fields and the site-based NC State employees were very accessible and always anxious to help.

How did you balance working and completing your degree?

I did not sleep much during the earlier parts of the degree — I would average 4-5 hours a night during the week. As I progressed, the workload became a bit more controllable, and I was able to plan additional study time into my working schedule. Tandemloc has always had a significant interest in my success in the program, and they allowed me to work a very flexible schedule. I still spent many late nights and weekends working and studying to keep up, but the flexibility provided by my employer was absolutely essential to my success.

Did you have any faculty members who were particularly inspiring or stood out to you?

Dr. Howard and Dr. Fortney were two people who stood out to me as being extremely committed to my learning experience. In my opinion, both of these instructors went way beyond the normal level of effort to make sure that students had a good grasp of the material.

What is your advice for other working professionals who are thinking about continuing their education? 

The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. It really felt like a HUGE undertaking to go back to school (again), but if you focus on one semester at a time, it’s not so bad. I would encourage others to take an online program because of the flexibility and ease of communication it provides.

Michael Crawford


Tell us your story. Why did you pursue the Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree with a concentration in Mechanical Engineering Systems?

In 2015 I was in the process of being medically retired from the Marine Corps, and I struggled to decide what I would do for the rest of my life. Through self-reflection and a lot of research, I decided I wanted to become an engineer. The next step was to choose a school. I learned that NC State was highly ranked in the U.S. as an engineering school, and it was only a couple hours from my house in eastern North Carolina. So, I registered for some information about the College of Engineering while waiting to exit the military.

Michael Crawford pictured smiling sitting at a desk in an office.
Michael Crawford

A few weeks later, I received a brochure from NC State for the MES program in Havelock and realized I had the opportunity to get a four-year degree without moving my family to Raleigh. I could commute from my home to Havelock and that was perfect for me. I inquired about the program over the phone and ended up driving to meet with Dr. Fortney about the MES degree program. After sitting down with him, I decided the Havelock MES program was where I wanted to be.

The best thing about the program, in my opinion, is the small class sizes. My graduating class has 12 students and most of us have been together for the past three years. The distance class has a very specific degree plan, so every student takes the same classes. For that reason, it was the exact same group of students in my classes the whole time. We learned to study together, work together and to rely on each other. We built a bond and friendship that will last a lifetime. That helped me tremendously during the hardest courses and the longest research papers. Knowing everyone so well is a benefit I do not think I would have received on the main campus.

This program sets itself apart from other universities with its relationship with the DOD’s Fleet Readiness Center East. The professional engineers at FRC engage with the MES students regularly. They are the reviewers for all of the projects and presentations and they teach some of the courses. Having current, real-world, engineers available is an invaluable asset.

Describe your experience in the MES program.

I enjoyed the experience as much as you can in engineering school. Graduating with a degree in an engineering discipline is very stressful and difficult, but so rewarding when completed. I think having the close friends in all of the same courses helped relieve some of the stresses of the historically difficult classes. Knowing that your friends are struggling through it also makes you feel a little better and a lot less alone in the situation. 

The staff was always so helpful. Dr. Fortney and Michelle Pitman kept us on track academically and administratively. They took some of the admin worries away so we could focus on being successful in the classroom. Program Assistant Susan Lloyd was the class proctor for every class we ever had. She is absolutely amazing. She encouraged and guided us daily, took care of our homework and tests. Dr. Ali operated the lab and was always available to tutor or answer any class questions. I am thankful for the effort of the staff.

How did you balance working and completing your degree?

This is a tricky one for me. I am married with four children. I work to take care of them, spend as much time as I can with family and try to be successful at school. To try to maintain a good balance, I made a schedule and did my best to stick to it. I would go to school and/or work during the day. Then spend the evening eating and being with family. Once the kids were in bed, I would start on homework or study. It was rough on myself and my family, but we understood the outcome would be worth it. Now, as graduation approaches, I am happy we made the sacrifices and I look forward to relaxing a lot more.

How do you see your engineering degree helping you in your career?

I was retiring from the military when I went into this program, so the degree will literally create my career. I’m working as an engineer intern with the DOD now, so graduating will move me to the permanent engineer position.

Did you have any faculty members who were particularly inspiring or stood out to you?

I would say Susan Lloyd was the most helpful and encouraging every day. She was involved in all of our assignments and tests and assisted us every single day. Dr. Fortney was also an integral part of our success. It seemed as though he felt our success was his success also.

What is your advice for other working professionals who are thinking about continuing their education? 

More education is never a bad thing. If someone was considering going back to school or continuing their education, I would say go for it. Advanced knowledge in engineering is not money or time wasted. It keeps your mind working and opens you up to new technologies.

Feel free to share any other thoughts regarding your overall learning experience at NC State.

I appreciate the effort by the staff in Havelock and the lab equipment was top of the line technology. I feel I received the same or higher quality of education as I would have going to the main campus.

Congratulations to Daniel Colwell and Michael Crawford and the rest of the site-based Bachelor of Science in Engineering program with a concentration in Mechanical Engineering Systems spring 2020 graduating class! 

Are you interested in the site-based engineering program? Visit the program page or for a full list of degree and certificate programs. 

This post was originally published in Online and Distance Education News.