Juggling a career, family life and the pursuit of a college degree can involve acrobatics of a sort and many long days – all for the most worthwhile of causes.
Take Mike Berry, a senior project manager for a construction firm and the father of two young children. With nearly 20 years of experience in the construction industry, he decided to go back to school and pursue a long-deferred bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering Technology through SUNY Polytechnic Institute.
In pursuing his bachelor’s degree, he is able to take classes at other colleges and universities. He chose SUNY Broome for its strong Civil Engineering Technology degree program, as well as its proximity to one of the projects he is shepherding: the massive reconstruction of the Binghamton-Johnson City joint sewage treatment plant.
He has enjoyed his SUNY Broome experience, but there have been some stressful days – such as the one when he had a mandatory work meeting in Lock Haven, Pa., on the same day as an exam. He ended up taking the test, jumping in the car and driving three hours to the meeting, only to turn around and drive two hours back home — a rather long day, but one in which all his many obligations were met.
Despite the juggling act, coming back to school later in life has its rewards.
“Returning to school after working in the industry, I tend to enjoy it more, to grasp it more,” he reflected. “What you’re learning makes sense, and you want to focus more.”
Coming back to school
A native of Elmira, Berry earned an Associate’s degree in Mathematics and Science from Onondaga Community College in 1997 and then transferred to SUNY Poly, where he continued his studies but didn’t complete his bachelor’s in Civil Engineering Technology. He played varsity baseball at both schools, and was hired at Welliver in 1999 after an internship during his senior year.
The company encouraged him to continue his education and he took a few courses to finish his degree, but soon became too busy. The last blow to his motivation came when he took a Calculus II course at Ithaca College, earning only a C-minus, a grade that wouldn’t transfer to his end degree.
“My initiative went down the tubes,” he said.
His education didn’t end, however. He went on to earn multiple certifications, including in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and as a Certified Healthcare Constructor (CHC). He has worked on a wide variety of projects, from a new hospital in the Corning area to a cocoa plant in Hazelton, two residential initiatives at Cornell University and more.
He took his first SUNY Broome class in 2006: reinforced concrete design. Then, his next project took him out to Hazelton, Pa., and school was off the table until 2017.
“I just sat back one day and said, ‘I guess you got to try it,’” he said of his decision to complete his degree. “I dove in and I’ve had a lot of support around me. I just pushed on and I got through it. It was very difficult at times — don’t get me wrong.”
He has achieved a GPA of 4.0 at Broome, with a few more classes to go. At 41, he’s older than the traditional college student, but never felt set apart; instead, he has forged connections with both his professors and his fellow students.
Professors he connected with include Dr. Kelli Ligeikis, now provost at SUNY Delhi, and hydraulics instructor Tom Sullivan. Professor Joe DeAngelo also provided essential guidance on course options.
Connection goes both ways, said Berry, noting that students who are attentive and show initiative prime themselves for success. “There are students who truly want to be there and learn, and that goes a long way with professors,” he observed.
He has invited professors to observe work sites, and encouraged his younger peers to pursue careers in an industry he has called home for two decades. And SUNY Broome has rubbed off in other ways, too, in addition to bolstering his confidence as a student: The information and skills he masters in the classroom have had a positive impact on his work.
He finds himself referring to his coursework during the course of his job, such as designing concrete piles. Professor Tom Myers’ soil mechanics course was both thorough and helpful in teaching the theory behind the soil and foundation design relative to geotechnical engineering, Berry explained.
“The people and the professors have been very helpful in getting me back in the groove of things. Here, everyone is very personable,” he said. “I’ve always been a one-on-one learner; I don’t want the 50 to 60 students in a lecture hall.”