Student Spotlight: Robert Ridgway

Student Spotlight: Robert Ridgway

Robert Ridgway
Major: Engineering

Robert Ridgway didn’t choose College of DuPage. Instead, COD chose him.

“I was working in Austin, Texas, 25, married to my wonderful wife with a delightful daughter and doing pretty good,” he said. “My mother called me and asked how I would like to move my family in with them (my parents) and go to school full time. I told her, ‘Yeah, Mom I’ll think about it.’ My immediate thoughts were, ‘Is she crazy? I could never do that. What would I even study? What if I fail?’

“Then I thought maybe I could provide more, maybe inspire my daughter when she gets old enough to go to school, and maybe I could actually do this. I decided to take advantage of this rare opportunity. Then we were blessed with the news that we were going to have another child. I called my mom and told her, ‘I have good news and bad news: Good news is you’re going to have another grandchild; bad news is you’re going to have another grandchild.’ She responded, ‘That’s not bad news, that’s wonderful news!’

“That’s how I ended up at COD, moving in with my parents with my wife, our daughter, a baby boy on the way and a quiet promise to myself that I would make this work no matter what.”

Before moving, Ridgway worked in a hydraulic repair shop, which is where his interest in engineering began.

“I had no idea I was already on the pathway to becoming a mechanical engineer,” he said. “I had no real college education outside of a few general education classes and machining was something I really enjoyed that came naturally to me. I eventually reached the ceiling on what I could learn on manual lathes and mills and left to pursue a career in CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining as an operator with the hopes of learning everything I could and maximizing my skillset.

“The first day I was absolutely blown away by these amazing, huge, robotic, multi-axis, ultra-efficient, high-speed, coolant spraying, metal cutting monsters. There was a symphony happening in these machines. Mechanical components were being moved by an electrical system orchestrated by computer code at the fastest speeds the laws of physics would allow. And I got to see it all through a child-like stage of my engineering path without any higher level math or physics. My perspective was full of awe and curiosity, wondering how every detail of this system functions in harmony with one another.”

College of DuPage was the perfect place for Ridgway to return to school. He took a light course load his first semester to make sure he could handle the work. From there he absorbed the material and took advantage of the College’s many support services.

“I was eligible for calculus I because I previously had taken trigonometry – six years earlier! I didn’t have any idea what calculus was and, to be completely honest, was petrified at the thought of getting through the math and physics that the engineering curriculum required,” he said. “I spent nearly every day in the Learning Commons where professionals with science, math and engineering degrees sat in cubicles waiting to help the next student with their problem. I could not have needed this more because I had to relearn all the underlying algebra and trigonometry rules within the calculus problems and I really can’t thank the Learning Commons enough for providing me with the ability to power through this amount of material in an efficient manner. I received an A in my first math class in six years.

“Instead of scratching my head at every wall I ran into, I was helped over that wall by friendly, compassionate COD tutors who would see plenty more of me in the upcoming semesters."

After choosing mechanical engineering as a career, Ridgway met Engineering Assistant Professor Scott Banjavcic, who advised him on what to take and how best to transfer, and Engineering Professor David Smith.

“They were absolutely invaluable to my education. They both provided an amazingly clear understanding to engineering topics and concepts in a small classroom setting that I could not have found at the university level,” he said. “They were always available for me when I was stumped on a problem and would guide me through it logically and thoughtfully with full intention of making sure I understood the material. They remain invaluable mentors to me and I encourage all engineering students to take advantage of them as a resource and mentor. I believe the entire country should model their engineering classes after those professors.”

Ridgway transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his senior design project combined his knowledge of physics, math and engineering with his machining background. 

“Our team was tasked with retrofitting a small manual milling machine for UIC Motorsports, which is affiliated with the Society of Automotive Engineers,” he said. “The project consisted of design, analysis and synthesis stages and was a success. The machine is currently in UIC Motorsports garage and is being used to make parts for their competition vehicles.

“Every student I knew who made it through COD did exceptionally well at UIC and other universities. During my final semester, I studied under Dr. Carmen Lilley whose research is affiliated with Argonne National Laboratory. Having COD on my resume was very helpful when receiving this opportunity.”

Ridgway graduated summa cum laude with bell honors, which represents the highest GPA in the College of Engineering. He now works as an applications engineer for NUM Corporation in Naperville, which developed the first CNC controller in 1961.

“I get to combine my machinist and engineering knowledge while learning programming languages and software to assist NUM in providing their customers with the best service possible. This is the definition of full circle.”

His ultimate goal is to continue learning more as he progresses through the beginning of his career. Ridgway hopes his story provides inspiration to others who might doubt their ability to accomplish something they want to pursue.

“I turned 26 during my first semester with a wife, a kid and another on the way and was able to be successful because College of DuPage prepared me better than any other college could have for university-level curriculum,” he said. “I had an engineering class at UIC with 144 students where the professor ranked us based on our grades. I knew about five or six other students from COD in that class and they were all in the top 10 percent of that ranking. Not to mention, COD comes at a fraction of the price students pay at university.

“It’s an absolute no brainer, you will get a better education in a smaller classroom with a professor who cares about their students rather than their research. This will prepare you to be successful on your own when you transfer and find yourself in a lecture hall with 144 students. COD was invaluable to my education and career and I could not have been any luckier to have the opportunity to attend.”

More about the Engineering program

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