CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — It took him 35 years, but Christopher Young finally received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Illinois in May.
The 53-year-old Navy veteran and and former Champaign Police officer said he has been interested in space since a young age.
“I blame Star Trek. Scotty was an awesome engineer and miracle worker,” Young said. “Then watching the first space shuttle launch on TV at my best friend’s house. It was just incredible.”
Young was raised in Champaign, but moved to Texas with his family when he was 12. Six years later, he started working on a Bachelor of Science degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, joining the Navy ROTC program to pay for his tuition.
“My plan was to be an engineer in the Navy for an initial tour, get out, and get an engineering job,” Young said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t hit UT running fast enough or hard enough. I wasn’t the best student and had to repeat classes, which kept me from taking other classes. The Navy is lenient, but still has a cap on the amount of time it takes to get a degree. I had to get out of engineering if I wanted to get a commission in the Navy.”
He switched to economics in his junior year, which allowed him to finish college with minors in math, physics and aerospace engineering. After college, he served in the Navy as a surface warfare officer for three-and-a-half years, but then a new reality him him.
“Right near the end of that time, my significant other became pregnant with twins, so I had to find a job and fast,” Young said.
He still had family in Champaign, including his father who worked at the police department which was hiring. Young said he flew in from Washington State where he was stationed at the time, took the physical and written tests, interviewed and accepted a job.
“Although it was not my calling, I had a family to take care of,” Young explained. “I liked police work but I did not love it.”
He worked as a patrol officer and then as a bomb squad officer. Young said that getting on the bomb squad “fed that technical brain thing that I needed,” which in turn led him to start thinking about finishing what he started at the University of Texas.
“About three years before I retired from the police department, my wife Lisa said, ‘Okay if that’s what you want to do, stop kicking it around and start doing it,'” Young said. “So, I studied, and took the math placement test to get into Calculus 1 at Parkland Community College.”
“I fell a few points short,” Young continued. “I spoke with the dean of the math department, explained what I was trying to do, and asked for the system to show me a little mercy. He chuckled and said, ‘The system doesn’t show mercy, but I do,’ and he let me into the course.”
Young began the tough task of taking one class at a time at Parkland while finishing his 23-year career as a Champaign Police officer. He eventually succeeded in retaking all of the core math, physics, statics and dynamics classes and then applied for transfer to the University of Illinois into the aerospace engineering program.
His application was accepted when he was 50.
“They waived the English and foreign language requirement based on what I had taken in my first bachelor’s degree,” Young said. “That was a big one. If I had to redo foreign language, I’m not sure I would have done this.”
Young said the hardest part, particularly in the last two years, was juggling his education with his family – Lisa, their six kids and four grandchildren. He had to give time to things the average 20-year old student doesn’t.
“When the workload really cranked up full force, the biggest thing was to find a student/home/family balance, and I think if you talk to my wife she’d probably say I didn’t find that balance,” Young said. “I might not get all A’s but I definitely shoot for them, which interfered with a lot of family time because I was very driven, very focused.”
Young said that overall, everyone, including his professors and fellow undergrads, were tremendous. He was also able to accomplish a major life goal while he was working toward his degree.
“Something I said at my retirement ceremony from the police department was that one of my goals in life was to touch something that goes into space,” Young said. “Working in the Laboratory for Advanced Space Systems at Illinois as an undergrad, I already accomplished that goal that with CAPSat. It launched to the International Space Station in August 2021 and deployed two months later, so that’s pretty awesome.”
Even with his long-awaited aerospace engineering degree in hand, Young isn’t finished with his education. He plans to start a master’s degree in space systems this fall, saying he wants to do something that incorporates satellite altitude determination and control and orbital mechanics for his thesis.
He also offered some advice for people thinking about getting a degree later in life:
“You have to give yourself a very hard look and make sure you are ready and able to put in the work,” Young said. “Then, pick your jumping-off point intentionally and well. Create goals and a plan and act on them. Make sure you have a strong support system at home and in class. I was fortunate to have both.”