By Debra Levy Larson
This past May, Christopher Young completed something he started 35 years ago. At the age of 53, Young earned a B.S. in aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is candid about the ways his life unfolded and his original career plans derailed, while also proud of his most recent accomplishment and excited for the future.
Young grew up in Champaign but moved to Texas with his family when he was 12 years old. He said he’d always been interested in space.
“I blame Star Trek. Scotty was an awesome engineer and miracle worker,” he said. “Then watching the first space shuttle launch on TV at my best friend’s house. It was just incredible.”
At 18, he began working on a B.S. in aerospace at the University of Texas Austin, joining the Navy ROTC to pay for his education.
“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.
“In my junior year, I pivoted to economics, but, as you can imagine, when you move from engineering to liberal arts, you pick up a lot of credits, so I wound up with minors in math, physics, and aerospace engineering.”
The pivot also meant his undergraduate degree would take more than four years, but he did it, then served in the Navy for three and a half years as a surface warfare officer. That’s when a new reality changed his plans again and brought the need for an even bigger pivot.
“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 had family in Champaign, including his father, who worked at the police department, and they were hiring.
“I flew in from Washington State, where I was stationed at the time, took the physical and written tests, interviewed, and accepted a job in the Champaign police department,” Young said. “Although it was not my calling, I had a family to take care of. I liked police work but I did not love it.”
Young worked as a patrolman for 23 years. He said the work was interesting and every day was different but at about year 10 he started looking for other opportunities.
“An opening on the bomb squad came up, so I applied for it and got it,” Young said. “My biggest problem as a police officer was the lack of mental stimulation. Getting on the bomb squad fed that technical brain thing that I needed.”
About that same time, he also began planning how he could finish what he started at UT Austin.
“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.’ So, I studied, and took the math placement test to get into Calculus 1 at Parkland Community College. I fell a few points short. 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 arduous task of taking one class at a time at Parkland while working full time as a police officer, eventually retaking all of the core math, physics, statics, and dynamics classes.
“I wanted to make sure that whoever would be reviewing my transfer into the University of Illinois would know I could do it. I brought a previous degree, but we’re talking about 25 years ago.”
At the age of 50, he was accepted into the aerospace engineering undergraduate program at Illinois. Watch a video of Young describing a vertically landing rocket challenge.
“They waived the English and foreign language requirement based on what I had taken in my first bachelor’s degree,” he 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 everything in life. Between them, he and his wife have six kids and four grand kids. Consequently, there are things he had to give time to that the average 20-something 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. 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.”
As an older student, Young said overall everyone has been tremendous, including the professors and his fellow undergrads.
“I'm not the average student, so the professors don't look at me like an average student,” he said. “We can have actual conversations without the age barrier being there. That said, there have only been one or two professors older than me so I’m usually the oldest one in the classroom. I do understand all of their cultural references and jokes, that's for sure.
“There were a couple of times when the students tried to give me nicknames, like CAD Dad, but I told them I don’t need a nickname. And obviously I don’t hang out on weekends at Kam’s, but I felt accepted. I made an effort to tone down my age. I told them that I’m not here to be your dad or to be bossy. I’m learning this stuff just like you. I have different life experience and perspective to bring to a problem, but for the most part there are a lot of things we're all on the same page about.”
One of the differences Young sees between him and the other students is the speed at which they work, which he particularly noticed when working on a group project. There have been times when they’ve moved ahead quickly, only to hit a wall. Young said he thinks those were times when his age helped them back up and regroup to try a different approach.
“The group work can be challenging. I won't even blame age. People bring different attitudes and skills to the game. I was a team lead for one of the senior design projects last spring and, hopefully, the soft skills I developed as a police officer helped me to not be overbearing.”
While he was working on his second bachelor’s degree and even now, Young says he does get a frequent question: What are you gonna do with this thing?
“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. This fall, I will start grad school and work on a master’s degree in space systems with Professor Michael Lembeck. I’d like to do something that incorporates satellite attitude determination and control and orbital mechanics for my thesis.”
What advice would Young give someone 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,” he 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.”