Mark Wonsul is set to celebrate graduation, 26 years after he started college

April 21, 2021

The manufacturing engineering spring graduate talks about why he never gave up and the rewards of college in your 40s.

Photo of Spring 2021 graduate Mark Wonsul
Photo of Spring 2021 graduate Mark Wonsul
Graphic by Violet Dashi

These days, programs for skilled trades are experiencing a surge as an alternative to a four-year college experience. Mark Wonsul says they were when he finished high school too — 26 years ago. Fresh off graduation, he enrolled in a trades program at then Henry Ford Community College mostly because he knew he liked working with his hands but didn’t quite know what he wanted to do. It turned out to be a great fit, though. He excelled in all his technical classes, tearing through every course they had in the machining program. Soon after, he landed a job in the field, then another, and eventually worked his way up to team lead at a small company that has a niche specialty making huge equipment for heavy industry. Most of the parts they make are so massive, Wonsul says, they “have to be lifted onto a truck with a crane.”

He loved the work, but thoughts of earning a four-year degree always lingered somewhere in the background. While working as a machinist, he continued taking classes at Henry Ford. And at his five-year class reunion, he caught up with an old friend and recent grad of UM-Dearborn, who talked up the engineering program. His friend helped set up an appointment with his advisor, Professor Swatantra “Munna” Kachhal, who was among the faculty who saw past Wonsul’s lackluster grades in some subjects to the high marks in his technical classes. “I can’t remember which professor it was, but one of the guys actually said to me, ‘You know, Mark, you’re not the best student. But I can see you have a technical mind.’ So they decided to give me a chance, and I transferred to UM-Dearborn.” 

Wonsul remembers it as an exciting time in his life. Now in his mid-20s and still working full-time as a machinist, he was making good money and plugging away at his engineering degree part time. He got married, and he and his wife started a family. Initially, he didn’t expect it would be more than a planned semester hiatus when she gave birth to their second child. But their son had a lot of health issues right after he was born, including a major surgery that necessitated Wonsul taking some additional time off school. Then the 2008 recession hit, and the belt tightening that followed meant there wasn’t room in the family budget for college classes.

What started off as a semester break slowly grew into nine years — a period where the fact that he hadn’t finished his degree often nagged at him. Wonsul says turning 40 was the turning point. He called up the UM-Dearborn advising office, not even really knowing if they’d let him back after such a long break. But it turned out to be surprisingly easy to re-enroll, and an advisor found him a spot in one of the few engineering classes that still had an opening. “I was definitely grateful. But I’ll say this: Don’t take Applied Mechanics as your first class after 10 years off. Now it wouldn't be a big deal. But not having done that kind of math for so long, I barely survived. My tutor — she totally saved my butt.”

Student Mark Wonsul poses for a family portrait with his wife and two teenage children, sitting on the stairs of their home.
Student Mark Wonsul poses for a family portrait with his wife and two teenage children, sitting on the stairs of their home.
Wonsul with his wife, Kim, and kids, April and Zach.

Wonsul found his footing soon after, reestablishing a part-time class schedule that he now had to fit in with the rhythms of family life. He says his wife and kids have been nothing but understanding, though it still killed him a little when the need to study for big exams meant missing a few of his kids’ sporting events. But being an older student has its benefits. For one, he’s way more disciplined now — often calculating the number of hours he’d have to work at his job to pay for a class, and using that as motivation to get through it on the first try. And at work, now he’s the one talking up the engineering program, especially to one of the guys on his team, a man a little younger than him who Wonsul calls “a real smart guy who wasn't dealt the best hand but could totally do it.” 

The year of pandemic learning wasn’t exactly how he planned to finish his undergraduate career, but it’s come with at least one pleasant surprise. When Wonsul logged on for one of his first remote classes, up on the Zoom screen popped now Professor Emeritus Kachhal — who had retired during Wonsul’s layoff but came back to help out during the pandemic. “That was pretty special, because I was a little bummed when I came back and saw that he was gone. The first time around, I remember bringing my daughter to meetings with Dr. Kachhal and she’d color in her coloring books while we talked. Now she’s 16, he’s retired, and I’m 44. So it's a pretty special way to end this whole thing.”

Wonsul says the other really special thing is that his kids have seen this final lap in the journey — and how hard he’s worked to get there. “It’s really funny, but now that I’m graduating, my daughter actually told me she’s proud of me. And boy, does that feel good. I know they’re watching and it would kill me for them to see me fail. I think if they’re going to learn anything from me, it’s that work ethic. That — and to finish college when you’re supposed to.”

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