Engineering Relationships: Alumni gain more than knowledge in online program

Alex Walechka and Rebecca Koble

When Alex Walechka and Rebecca Koble enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s online Master of Science in Engineering program in 2021, they went in with the expectation that most graduate students do. Namely, to attain an advanced degree in their area of specialty to improve their current careers and future job prospects.

Walechka and Koble both accomplished this, earning their diplomas this past December, but they also found something more than advanced learning during their time in the program. Something that could have easily never been, but once discovered, enriched both their academic and personal lives because of it.

It started when each heard about the other through a mutual friend. Few details were given, but enough was there to get the conversation started. Walechka and Koble soon discovered they shared a couple of classes – and were even assigned to edit each other’s papers for their Engineering Communications course. Busy schedules and living hours apart delayed their first date until over a month later, but once the two met up to go hiking, they quickly discovered how much common ground they shared.

Among these similarities was the fact both were not only current graduate students in UW-Platteville’s online engineering program, but each had attended the university as an undergraduate. Koble had majored in industrial engineering, while Walechka’s interest focused on electrical engineering.

“UW-Platteville’s reputation as a great engineering college, small class sizes, hands-on-learning approach, and its Women in STEM program made it the right choice for me,” Koble said. “I was also interested in Platteville because I grew up hearing how much my dad enjoyed his time there.”

Walechka was also drawn to UW-Platteville for its strong selling points.

“I chose Platteville because of the smaller class sizes, compact campus, and the emphasis on a design-oriented electrical engineering program,” Walechka said. “I was also looking to compete in track and field, and Platteville had a competitive team with plenty of other athletes pursuing a degree in engineering.”

Koble graduated in May 2019 and Walechka followed a year later. Yet, both returned to their alma mater in January 2021 to start the next chapter of their educational journeys. Walechka had always intended to get a master’s degree eventually, but when the pandemic hit and abruptly ended his track season, he decided to enroll early to finish out his eligibility. Meanwhile, Koble was influenced by her time on campus, but also missed learning about new concepts and applying them to her work and personal life. She also found there were additional perks for going the online route.

“I chose UW-Platteville again, not only because of my time there, but also for the flexibility in classes and the variety of course options within the grad program,” Koble said. “The ability to get an emphasis in engineering management was particularly appealing. I’ve seen firsthand the amazing positive impact a great manager can have, and I wanted to have the same impact on others if I was ever given that responsibility in my career.”

Walechka’s time in the program proved just as enlightening. He was impressed by how much new material his classes covered, with particular focus on the industrial side of engineering, a subject he knew little about before starting the program. Like Koble, he was also pleased by the emphasis options available for the graduate degree.

“I went with a secondary emphasis in electrical controls for my master’s degree,” Walechka revealed. “This was different from my undergrad emphasis of power systems and communications. This emphasis helped diversify the areas I’d been introduced to in the electrical field as well.”

Yet as confident as the two were with returning to school, completing the program wasn’t easy. Working full time and finding time for schoolwork presented challenges, but whenever difficulties arose, Walechka and Koble found a way through them together, despite living hours away. Each found strength in having a fellow student to bounce questions and ideas off of, edit papers for, and offer different perspectives when needed. The responsibilities of work, life and school were a balancing act, but one that rarely got the better of them.

This partnership continued all the way up to graduation in December 2022 and beyond. Now, equipped with their new degrees, the couple plans to move forward in their professional careers, applying what they learned in the virtual classroom to real-world situations. Walechka currently works as an electrical engineer for Cardinal Glass Automation Group in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and eventually hopes to grow into a leadership role, managing a team of engineers in a design or manufacturing capacity. Koble – who works as a process engineer for Kimberly Clark in Neenah, Wisconsin – also plans to transition into a manager position someday, among other goals.

“Besides mentoring fellow engineers as a manager, another goal of mine is to expand my outreach to students interested in STEM,” Koble said. “Math and science were very challenging for me throughout school, but I enjoyed learning about them. If I’d believed the assumption that you must be good at math and science to be an engineer, something I heard often as a kid, I would never have become one. I’d like to encourage those interested in STEM that just because the courses and topics are challenging to you, it doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing them. Even the most challenging topics can be learned with enough time and the right teachers.”

It could be said Walechka and Koble’s own success has benefited with time and the right teachers, found both within and outside the university setting. Now, with one chapter of their lives closing and another set to begin, the two find themselves looking toward the future while never forgetting the factors that have shaped their journey so far.

“We have experienced it all together,” Walechka said. “The challenging classes, the balancing act of work, school and personal lives, the countdown to graduation day – and it has been an amazing addition to our story.”