Lines to Electrical Engineering

Steven Bell is in the final lap of earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. Like a typical senior, Bell is checking off the usual steps to completion: coursework, capstone project, internship. However, his journey to the major has been rather unusual. The path has meandered, dotted with stops that have been rewarding, informative, and marked by his determination.

Looking back…

Bell graduated from high school in Vadnais Heights in 2010. Although unsure about his next steps after graduation, he felt certain about one thing: college was not for him. Despite his aptitude for math and physics, he was not convinced he could find a place to use it. Besides, college and academic activities as he then perceived them did not seem exciting. As he mulled over his future, Bell chanced upon a recruitment commercial for the U.S. Marines; the opportunities afforded were appealing. He enlisted, and after training was stationed in Okinawa. Reflecting on his time in the military, Bell found the experience of meeting and working with people from culturally and socially disparate backgrounds richly rewarding. After his stint with the U.S. Marines, Bell returned to civilian life, and found himself scouting for career options. Yet again, he was certain that college was not for him; the investment of time and resources that it entails seemed daunting, and affirmed his decision. His search led him to a vocational program that offered training in electrical line work. He signed up and 10 months later found himself working at a site in North Dakota for a Minnesota-based contractor.

Pivot to school

Doing contract work for a utility was tedious, involving a lot of travelling to job sites. Bell realized that this was not a career path he wanted to stay on for long, and he began evaluating his options. During one of his winter layoffs (line work is minimal due to the frozen ground), he found work as a sales associate at a Best Buy store. By his own confession, he was probably a poor salesman but an excellent conversationalist. And the opportunity to meet new people almost everyday was satisfying. During one of his shifts, he began chatting with a customer considering a new television set. The chat grew into a two hour long conversation at the end of which the customer, a former lineman turned electrical engineer, managed to persuade Bell about the merits of pursuing a four year degree. By day’s end, a couple of thoughts lingered in Bell’s mind: perhaps college was an option to consider, and electrical engineering would probably be a space for him to engage his aptitude for math and physics, and his experience as a lineman. His memories of how much he enjoyed the two subjects in school helped cement his decision to take the next steps towards college.

College: a balancing act

In 2017 Bell began taking Math classes at Normandale Community College (NCC). He started with one class in spring, ramping up to full time status the following fall. He scheduled all his classes for Fridays while working full time Monday to Thursday. He spent his evenings and weekends on homework, and preparing for tests. For Bell, this was the period in which he began laying the groundwork for his time as an undergraduate student.

“I started getting into the headspace of being a good student.”

Yet despite all his diligence, conversations with his advisors at Normandale soon made it clear that pursuing both work and classes at full time status was not realistic. After some careful thought about how best to work to pay for school while also retaining some time for his own health and wellness, Bell made the decision to step away from electrical line work. He took up a custodial job scheduled for the evenings. While this was a sacrifice in more ways than one, it also meant he could now focus on his long term goal of pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.

“I showed up at Normandale at 7:30 am everyday regardless of whether I had class or not. I used my time there to study and do my homework; it helped me focus on my coursework and prevented me from getting distracted with chores at home.”

As he took classes preparatory to transferring to the electrical engineering major, he was surprised by how broad the major was. He had not expected to see such a diverse array of courses for the major (the digital design course as a requirement was a surprise to him), or its application in areas as seemingly disparate as biomedical devices, networking, and magnetics. Not one to waste a moment, Bell quickly set about a careful review of four-year institutions that offered the electrical engineering major. After comparing factors such as tuition expenses, internship and job opportunities, specialty areas within the major, and time to graduation, he settled on the University of Minnesota. Making this decision early on meant he could curate his coursework at NCC with the guidance of his advisors there to ensure a relatively seamless transfer to the University eventually. There were of course sacrifices along the way; there were classes Bell was interested in, but didn’t pursue because that would interfere with his timeline to transfer to the University.

University, COVID, and beyond

Bell’s transfer to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering was uneventful for the most part. His careful planning regarding courses, study and work habits, and time management were instrumental in helping him settle in at the University. This is not to say that he did not encounter any surprises. The size of a math class for instance was a bit of a shock. Some of our math courses are requirements for multiple majors because of which these classes tend to be larger than the typical subject or major classes. Other points of surprise stemmed from the size of the campus--the commute time between classes, and exam locations being different from regular class locations were rather novel to him.

The onset of the pandemic in 2020 altered the landscape for most of us. The sudden closure of the campus in March, and the pivot to learning online turned out to be a challenging time for Bell, as it was for most students. He struggled for a while as he tried to adapt to the new modality of studying and working remotely, but adapt he did and eventually settled into the new routine.

With the University having returned to in-person classes this fall, Bell is happy to be on campus and finish up his final few classes. He has been an intern with Xcel Energy for almost two years now, and has found his internship experience to be richly rewarding. He has even had the opportunity to move to a different team at the company, and broaden his understanding of power systems. While Bell has worked hard at managing his schedule and balancing his work, school, and personal lives, he acknowledges that the support he receives from his partner has been critical. “Erica helped me stay focused on my long term goals by taking on the bulk of our household responsibilities so I could forge ahead with school.” He also credits the student chapter of the IEEE honor society HKN for the academic support he has received. He has made the most of their tutoring sessions, and has found their pandemic-driven tutoring format over a Discord server even more timely and prompt.

Bell is keen on pursuing a career in power generation, and is particularly interested in renewables. He is looking forward to graduation and exploring opportunities that lie beyond. Describing himself, he says: “I am a sky's the limit kind of guy.” Armed with his academic and professional experiences, and a spirit like his, we say why not. Steven Bell has every right to look into the future with hope, drive, and confidence.