Distance learning has been a fact of life for many students lately. But Jonathan Wirkkala, an electrical engineering student at the University of North Dakota, had been learning at a distance for years before the pandemic. In fact, he was an entire hemisphere away from campus.
Inspired by his grandfather whose work involved room-sized computers, Wirkkala wanted a career that would allow him to tinker with machines. After high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force and became an aircraft computer technician. While still on active duty, he enrolled in UND’s online bachelor’s program in electrical engineering. He hoped to one day design the computers he repaired.
“I searched around online and found that the University of North Dakota is one of the few accredited schools that offers a completely online degree program for engineering,” Wirkkala said. “It was a hop, skip and a jump from where I grew up [in Hanover, Minnesota].”
Wirkkala began his online studies while stationed in South Korea. He proudly wore UND-branded shirts and caps, even though he hadn’t stepped foot on campus. Wirkkala felt supported. UND professors would reach out to him, and the electrical engineering program would invite him to webinars and conferences. The University allowed his commander to proctor one of his exams. And the knowledge he gained in his classes immediately applied to his job as a technician.
From Grand Forks to Guatemala
Once he left the Air Force, Wirkkala shifted to in-person instruction in the spring of 2019. Facilitated by the UND Veteran & Military Services Office, the transition was easy, he said. “UND offered tons of resources,” he said. “I showed up and, three days later, I was in classes.”
Soon after he arrived in Grand Forks, Wirkkala’s career trajectory changed. He joined the UND student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), of which he later became president. Through the organization, Wirkkala and his UND peers from a variety of engineering disciplines embarked on a five-year project. The goal was to build a water storage system for a small village in north-central Guatemala that lacked access to clean water.
Prior to COVID, Wirkkala’s team traveled to the Central American nation to assess the community’s needs. Following their visit, they spent months designing a solution with the help of faculty advisors and practicing engineers. Today, because the students could not return to Guatemala due to the pandemic, a local contractor is erecting a water storage and purification system based off of their blueprints.
“I really enjoy working with people and trying to solve basic human needs issues,” Wirkkala said, adding that he is working on details such as the electronic control of water chlorination.
Having discovered the links between water management and electrical engineering, Wirkkala is now interning at AE2S, an engineering firm that specializes in water projects. “UND has altered where my career is going for the better,” he said. “It absolutely opened my eyes to new possibilities.”