Muskegon Community College honors Whitehall native with highest alumni award

Ryan Wheeler,2024 Muskegon Community College Distinguished Alumnus

Muskegon Community College (MCC) has officially announced the selection of Ryan Wheeler as the recipient of the 2024 Distinguished Alumnus award, the most prestigious recognition bestowed upon an exceptional graduate.

Currently serving as a Senior Technical Fellow at Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wheeler commenced his educational journey at MCC from 1994 to 1997, initially as a work-study student in the Electronics 101 Lab. His academic pursuits continued with distinction as he completed his Bachelor of Engineering Technology at Michigan Tech, followed by the Executive Engineering Dual Master’s Program, earning both an MBA and a Master of Systems Engineering degree from the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

Reflecting on his transformative experience at MCC, Wheeler emphasizes the profound impact the college had on his path and self-perception.

“My life wouldn’t be the same without MCC,” Wheeler said. “That’s no hyperbole.”

Wheeler expresses gratitude to two influential professors, Mr. Anderson, and Mr. Tokarz in electronics, who identified his potential early on. Their encouragement led to an internship recommendation at the local Muskegon-based bowling company, Brunswick, where Wheeler gained three years of professional experience while completing his studies at MCC.

“It was through MCC that I developed the confidence to become an Engineer,” Wheeler said. “I fell in love with learning at MCC.”

He now tries to impart the wisdom he gained at Muskegon Community College to current students.

“Keep moving forward. What matters infinitely more than some arbitrary timeline of when-you-should-be-where in life is to just…keep…moving…forward. And as you move forward, opportunities will arise.”

The Distinguished Alumni Award celebrates individuals whose personal lives, professional achievements, and community service exemplify the institution’s core values and goals.

Read his full interview below: 

How specifically did MCC equip you for a career in the STEM field?

My life wouldn’t be the same without MCC. That’s no hyperbole. In every way, from discovering my love of learning to developing the skills that would lead to nine-figure benefits of ideas I’ve had and helped into existence at Collins Aerospace, most all of it is rooted in Muskegon Community College.

Now, specifically?

When I applied to MCC, I couldn’t have imagined this career and life today. I was very much an “at-risk” high school student. I’d scraped by, graduating near the bottom of my class, 107 out of 127, with a GPA just above a 2.0. I didn’t know what to do in life, but I enjoyed tinkering with electronics so becoming a Technician seemed like a good idea.

MCC admitted me, but not before giving some sage advice. An Admissions person met with me one-on-one. She was candid: My placement exam scores showed I was far behind. Yet, she added, “We see potential in you. We see potential in you. And to reach that potential you’ll need to take remedial classes to build the foundation you need. There may come a time when you’ll think those classes are beneath you. When that time comes, I’ll need you to check your ego. With that foundation, though, I’m confident you can succeed here at MCC.”

It’s hard to overstate what her assurance and advice meant to me, and those remedial courses served exactly the purpose she said they would. In fact, I often credit that first “remedial” language and grammar course as seeding my passion for writing and communication that’s served me and my company so well through the years. As I’ve told thousands of STEM students who’ve visited our Virtual Reality Lab: It’s one thing to have a good idea, and you must also have the communication skills to win support and work with teams to make it real. Design, in fact, is in many ways a form of communication.

Muskegon Community College accelerated my curiosity in STEM from a spark into a fire. Notable were Mr. Phil Anderson and Mr. Bill Tokarz. Their hands-on approach to technology – electronics, pneumatics, machine code, and so on – made theory real. Their lectures were practical, engaging, and always followed with labs that encouraged not just application of what we’d learned, but creativity in getting from a need (the assignment) to our solution. The means to iterate from a need to a solution is valuable as a Technician, Technologist, or Engineer!

And in so many further ways, MCC is where my career in STEM began. For instance, on our first day of our first Electronics class, Mr. Anderson shared the Electronics Lab needed a Lab Assistant and to come see him if we were interested. I didn’t have related work experience, and then there were my high school grades, but I voiced my passion and got the job. It paid half what I’d been earning and was oftentimes tedious, like sorting dozens of bins of resistors by color code, but it reinforced my learning and I loved it.

When a hiring manager from Brunswick Indoor Recreation called the school in search of a summer intern, Mr. Anderson gave m

y name. Thanks to the skills I’d learned through MCC classes, labs, and as a Lab Assistant, I was soon a contributing teammate, enough so that when the summer ended, they asked me to stay and accommodated my class schedule for the next three years. MCC was central in these opportunities, and I worked hard to make the best of them.

Discovering the joy of learning at MCC, and finding that I was a solid Technician, something occurred to me that was nowhere in my mind just years before: I might make a good Engineer! My grades at MCC opened acceptance to Michigan Tech (where I’d meet my wife, mother of our two kids, one who’s now at Michigan Tech!). I’d graduated from MCC, yet one of MCC’s biggest impacts to career – this time as an Engineer – was on the horizon.

An internship had soured after a workplace injury made me doubt the integrity of that company. I had little hope of finding a new internship in June when most had been filled. After dead ends with Michigan Tech, I called one of my Electronics professors at MCC, Mr. Tokarz. Though I’d graduated years earlier, Mr. Tokarz engaged and soon after I met with him and the Department Chair.

They knew someone in an R&D group at Donnelly Electronics who needed help finishing development of a test rig. I didn’t know how to program in Visual Basic, but I was committed to learn whatever was needed for that internship. In less than half the time expected, the rig was done.

That internship was a monument in my career. It’s where I discovered my calling: Designing digital solutions that people love. It’s where I learned the software skills equipping me to invent my first visual analytics apps as a “side gig” to being a Manufacturing Engineer. Those led to being named Collins Engineer of the Year and the opportunity to join a manufacturing R&D group where we created one of industry’s first scaled Virtual Reality apps, many further advanced visualization solutions, and a novel way to share human expertise. These help thousands of our employees do more for our customers, better, with delight, and they grew from an internship that was made possible through the helpful people of MCC!

Beyond my parents, no force has done more to shape my life than MCC.

When you look back on your time at MCC, what comes to mind?

People who care. A culture of learning. Professors who love to teach, who connect with students. Professional, knowledgeable professors who smile, encourage, exude warmth, support, and enjoy impacting people’s lives. When I look back on my time at MCC, I remember a palpable sense of The Possible, the opportunities I couldn’t have imagined that MCC would make possible, and the gratitude I feel for it.

Can you speak to any professors or faculty that were instrumental in your success?

Mr. Tokarz and Mr. Anderson, through and through. The lady in Admissions who saw potential in me when I didn’t yet see it in myself and gave the sage advice to check my ego and do the work to learn what I’d need. I don’t remember their names and wouldn’t recognize them, but the teachers in those remedial courses and in my Technical Communications course. An idea without the means to communicate it may as well be no idea at all.

What message do you have to other students who aspire for a career in STEM?

Keep moving forward. What matters far more than some arbitrary timeline of when-you-should-be-where in life is to just … keep … moving … forward. And as you move forward, opportunities will arise. When they do, step up. Take a chance on them and on yourself. And when an opportunity happens for you, have gratitude and put your whole self into it, always striving first to be of service to others. STEM is an ever-changing field, so even with your nose firm on the grindstone, keep your eyes on the horizon. People who look for potential are the ones who see it. And when you do, when you feel that tug at your gut or hear that whisper in your head telling you that Hey, there’s something here!, follow your curiosity with passion and with tenacity!

Anything else you would like to add?

Thank you to MCC. So much of my life – education, family, career, the awareness and means to serve my community – is thanks to MCC that it feels this award would be more apt coming from me to MCC: Distinguished Institution of Higher Education. Forever grateful for the ways MCC enabled my life. Forever a Jayhawk!