Eric Downing already has his dream job. And soon, he’ll receive the diploma that represents the years of hard work that put him in just the right place, at just the right time, to accept that dream job.
Since June, Downing has been a civil engineering technician with the United States Department of Natural Resources Conservation Service in New Philadelphia while continuing with summer classes and a full-time class load during the fall.
On Saturday, Dec. 15, Downing will receive a B.S. in Construction Engineering Technology, magna cum laude at the 10 a.m. commencement ceremony, where he has been chosen to speak on behalf of the Fall 2012 Class as the student responder. He is one of three student-veterans who have been awarded the honor for fall commencement ceremonies.
The route to his dream job and degree has been a long one, with a few detours, as it so often is for nontraditional students.
"I did well in high school, but I didn't really enjoy school then," recalls the Ohio native. "Financially, college wasn't an option, so I got a job after graduation."
Downing worked in retail and home construction for several years before enlisting in the U.S. Marines Corps in 1999.
“I was in boot camp for my 24th birthday," says Downing with a smile. "I always felt a desire to serve my country, and this was the right time."
Most of his service was spent in Cherry Point, N.C., as an aviation mechanic. When an injury ended his military career in 2003, Downing returned to Ohio. He went back to retail, focusing on commercial sales in the construction industry.
By mid-2009, Downing had decided it was time to make the most of his interests and work experiences, and put his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to good use.
“With my background, construction engineering technology was a good fit,” explains Downing. “I analyzed schools in the area, and three days after leaving my job, I was enrolled as a full-time student for the fall semester at The University of Akron.
Since then, he has carried a load of 17 to 19 credits a semester and taken 12 credits during each year’s summer sessions. He also put in more than 300 volunteer hours with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When possible, Downing took his classes at night because he commutes to campus from his farm near Atwood Lake. Despite the grueling schedule, he has a 3.8 GPA and is a member of two honorary societies — Phi Theta Kappa and Tau Alpha Pi.
During his years at UA, Downing also made time to give back.
He lent his expertise on two Alternative Spring Break trips to help rebuild homes on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"The majority of students who volunteer for the trips have never touched a power tool, or done this kind of work, so it was rewarding to see them gain confidence on the projects," says Downing. "And, it was especially rewarding for me to know that one of the houses we were rebuilding belonged to a Korean War veteran. I felt a bond immediately, knowing that I was helping a fellow vet."
While Downing takes pride in his academic accomplishments, he credits his wife of 12 years for her support. Christa Downing works as a neonatal intensive care nurse and the couple has two sons, Braden, 7, and Bryce, 18 months.
"She was just as committed as me to this goal, and her sacrifices have enabled me to do this," says Downing.
With the new job, there will be no downtime after graduation, and that suits Downing just fine. His assignments could vary from building wildlife habitats and wetlands to lakes and bridges. In addition, he is set to begin earning his professional engineer's license at Kent State University.
"I love the outdoors," says Downing. "I don’t want to be in an office all day. I want to be the guy in the field doing hands-on work. This job combines my passions of building, and working with agriculture and wildlife conservation management."