Pandemic experience turns AEM alumnus into NextGen Leader

When Ethan Och (BAEM ’20) arrived at the University of Minnesota from the rural city of Swanville in 2016, he wasn’t intimidated by the campus’ size. He immediately became enamored by the hustle and bustle of life on the Twin Cities campus, where he was excited to be pursuing his degree in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics. 

“During my four years at the University, I learned so many fascinating concepts and met so many exceptionally talented people — students and faculty alike,” Och stated. “But in early 2020, on the precipice of my graduation and the start of my career journey, another unexpected turn of events — a social reckoning, and a global pandemic.”

Och had been preparing to begin a full-time job at a company upon graduation, but due to a hiring freeze there, he ended up spending the next year and a half on numerous virtual mentorship programs and unfruitful job interviews. 

“I began to fear that I had perhaps made a mistake with my career decision — as an individual with a physical disability, finding work was already difficult since I couldn't easily relocate across the country to where the aerospace work was most readily available. The pandemic made it even harder, and the protected nature of most aerospace work meant that remote work was rarely an option.”

Finally, in the fall of 2021, Och caught a lucky break and was fortunate to have received a full-time remote offer from Northrop Grumman to join a program in their space sector, developing satellite ground software. Within a half year or so, however, funding challenges on the program led to a transition to Northrop Grumman's enterprise services sector, where he supports the harmonization of another sector's engineering and manufacturing processes.   

What an experience it's been!

Not only has Och found success in his field, but he also maintains his connections with those individuals and organizations who helped him to be successful. In early 2022, his former case manager at Vocational Rehabilitation Services — an agency that aided him during the job search process — reconnected with him and proposed that he become involved with a project sponsored by Disability Hub Minnesota, led by Kevin Kling and Beaudry Filmworks, to both showcase his career journey and to help highlight the types of career options available to people with disabilities. Och was eager to participate! 

Over a span of nearly six months, he was interviewed virtually, in a film studio, and at his home. The project was an immense success, and Och was proud to have shared his story. Since the release of the video, he has been contacted several times by others with disabilities who have been seeking career guidance to achieve their own goals.

“This project that I had the opportunity to be involved in, as well as my winding career path to the present date, has taught me a number of things. The old adage is true — ‘when one door closes, another door opens,’” Och reflected. Although he was disappointed when his job prospects collapsed at the onset of the pandemic, the event also allowed him to land a fantastic job with his dream company, one of the top aerospace and defense companies in the entire world. 

When asked what he would tell others in a similar situation, Och stated, “Perseverance and hard work pays off. Even in the face of adversity, with most companies stalling their hiring during the pandemic, I continued to spend each day applying for positions and reaching out to recruiters on LinkedIn, expanding my professional network and increasing my chances of success.” He also added, “It’s important to adopt a continual growth mindset and never stop learning new things.” During his year and a half of job searching, Och worked on personal projects in the areas of software development and electrical engineering to hone and broaden his skills.

Along with having the opportunity with Disability Hub Minnesota, he’s also been working with technologies and applying methods in his role at Northrop Grumman which he never studied during college. “It's been incredibly valuable to learn from experienced professionals and maintain an open perspective of new concepts,” he adds. “These are just a few of many things I've learned over the last few years since my time roaming Akerman Hall.” 

Ethan celebrating he 1 year with Northrop Grumman.
Ethan celebrating his first anniversary with Northrop Grumman.

Advice for others

Och wanted to share with others a few resources that have helped on his journey thus far. First and foremost, he found that Disability:IN and its NextGen Leaders mentorship program has been immensely helpful (he especially recommends this to students who work with the University of Minnesota’s on-campus Disability Resource Center). “If you ever have the opportunity to be involved in any kind of mentorship program, then go for it!” Och exclaims. Second, leverage the power of LinkedIn to meet people who have been in your shoes and can offer advice — use the platform to make a name for yourself, and show the world what you have to offer. Lastly, consider joining one or more professional engineering organizations, like the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), which can also help you to broaden your technical network. 

Och reminds us, “While many twists and turns may lie in store for you as you progress through your career journey, know that your next great opportunity may be just around the corner!”