When astronaut Mark Kelly delivered the keynote address during commencement last May in SIU Arena, he told our graduates that he achieved his dreams through “practice, persistence and the drive to never, ever give up.”

As he looks ahead to earning his bachelor’s degree in industrial technology next May, Michael Uphoff echoes Capt. Kelly’s sentiments.

“My grades in high school weren’t all that good,” says the senior from Monticello. “I learned it’s not about baseline intelligence, but about how you apply yourself. That is what I want to share with others.”

Michael earned his associate degree from Heartland Community College in Normal in 2011. He came to SIU because of the wonderful opportunities available through the Leadership Development Program in Engineering and Technology in our College of Engineering.

A generous donation by distinguished alumnus Dick Blaudow, founder, chairman and CEO of Advanced Technology Services (ATS) Inc. in Peoria, and his wife, Brigitte, established the program in 2006. Their gift funded scholarships for Illinois community college graduates who plan to attend SIU, and a subsequent contribution funded additional scholarships. A National Science Foundation grant has allowed the scholarship program, which includes a paid summer internship at ATS offering hands-on manufacturing and leadership experience, to expand further.

By his own admission, Michael is not the same person he was when he first joined the program and SIU.

“It has been a very big learning curve for me, going from the introvert I was. I have had to learn my own personal leadership style, how to be a more effective leader, and what my weaknesses are.”

Here is where persistence is paying off. Michael is the president of the college’s Leadership Development Program, and the Association of Technology, Management and Applied Engineering (ATMAE), both student organizations. Just a few weeks ago, ATMAE returned from a robotics competition where the group finished fourth in the nation.

One of the most important roles for Michael and fellow seniors in the leadership program is serving as mentors. He knows the value of that from personal experience.

“My first week in the Leadership Development Program was rough, but I was too determined to let it get to me. I was a junior, and the seniors later told me they were surprised I didn’t quit. I am very proud I didn’t.”

This year, he is mentoring two juniors.

“The mentoring and the tutoring we provide are important,” Michael says. “While we are a leadership group, we also focus on having strong academics. I wanted to make sure I was getting a 4.0 GPA, and I pride myself in my study habits. I wanted to share my skills with anyone in the college who is struggling. The College of Engineering is very demanding.”

As a student employee in our Center for Service-Learning and Volunteerism, Michael is also a strong advocate for giving back.

RITA CHENG is chancellor of SIU Carbondale. Her column appears weekly in Southern Plus.

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