Non-traditional student Steve Culver discovered his passion for mechanical engineering in college, but it wasn’t until the summer after his first year at TCU that he decided what he truly wanted to do with his degree. That summer, Culver took a trip to Southeast Asia that changed the direction of his life.
“While riding my motorcycle in the countryside of Cambodia, I learned two things that have really changed my life. First, Cambodia has more land mines per square mile than anywhere in the world. Second, Cambodia has one of the worst healthcare systems in the world. As a result of these situations, the country has many people that do not have legs, and little hope for rehabilitation,” Culver said.
“I had to look at these people and their suffering and realize I was powerless to do anything for them,” he said.
Culver had returned from his Cambodia trip with a new passion, and told his academic advisor at TCU that he wanted to build prosthetic devices with his mechanical engineering degree.
Over the summer, Culver had the opportunity of working as a research intern with Michael Goldfarb, professor of engineering and director of the Center for Intelligent Mechatronics at Vanderbilt University. Culver’s summer project involved programming Vanderbilt’s ankle-powered prosthesis prototype. He is currently in the process of writing a paper about his experience, which he is hoping will be published in a scientific journal.
Prior to TCU, Culver was in the military. He entered in 2005 at the age of 18 after high school, and during his time in the Marine Corps infantry he made three deployments to Iraq.
Once he was discharged from the Marines, Culver worked as a defense contractor in the U.S. for a year and a half, and in Baghdad for an additional three years. Culver started to realize that he was not passionate about what he was doing, and did not find his work fulfilling. As part of a high-treat protection team, he would visit multiple venues in Baghdad. After ISIS took over a base he frequented with his team while completing contract work, Culver decided he was ready to pursue a college degree. Coincidentally, within one week of departing from his contractor work, Culver received his acceptance letter for TCU.
When he discovered that the TCU Department of Engineering focuses on the success of its undergraduates, and allows them to work and study their specialization before graduate school, Culver was hooked. As he learned more about TCU, including its mission and the fact that it is a veteran-friendly school, Culver’s interest grew. The deciding factor was when Culver found out that TCU offers the Yellow Ribbon Program, which covers tuition for veterans. He said, “This was an opportunity to receive a quality education from a prestigious private school using my GI bill benefits. For me, I think the decision was a very good one.”
Culver attributes his success to the faculty at TCU. He said, “Students at TCU are blessed to have a lot of great faculty and staff here.” He is thankful for his advisor Stephen Weis, professor of engineering, who has been a mentor throughout his academic career. Some other helpful and inspiring faculty and staff that Culver has interacted with include Walt Williamson, professor of engineering and department chair, and Teresa Berry, administrative assistant in engineering. He described Berry as “the grandmother of engineering” because visiting with her is a nice escape from studying and research, and she always has an endless supply of snacks.
Culver has discovered personal growth and creativity from his time at TCU. He said, “something I love about college is that it is an environment that is all about the promotion of growth.” Culver considers himself a very creative person and he believes that creativity is necessary to be an effective engineer. At TCU, he does not feel ridiculed for trying to do something new, innovate or think outside of the box. Instead, Culver has been told, “that sounds like a good idea, why don’t we try that?”
Culver wants to take what he has learned and share that with other students, so he created a non-profit student organization called V.E.T.S. (Veterans in Engineering Technology and Science), an organization he founded with six other CSE non-traditional students. The program, geared toward veteran, non-traditional, and military-connected students pursuing STEM degrees, seeks to promote academic excellence within the TCU College of Science & Engineering (CSE). The organization’s mission is build a social network of people, provide motivation to younger students to help them stick with their academic and career goals, and build a professional network to help connect students to future careers.
Culver attributes his opportunity at Vanderbilt to the connections he has made at TCU, and he wants to give that to other students from the small scale of the engineering department to a larger scale of the entire CSE.
Engineering involves hard work and invested time, but if Culver feels like he can contribute to changing the world through his work, his work is not really “work” at all.