ECU student goes hog wild with Harley-Davidson co-op

East Carolina University student Eddie Okeiga never really thought about Harley-Davidson — either owning one of internationally known motorcycles or working at the company’s headquarters in Milwaukee.

That all changed after a six-month co-op that he says will launch him toward a successful career once he graduates in December.

Eddie Okeiga sits in front of Harley-Davidson during his co-op. (Photos provided by Eddie Okeiga)

“I made myself more employable when I graduate,” said Okeiga, a senior from Holly Springs. “I also got some real-world experience in an office and applied some coursework in the industry.”

Okeiga was part of Harley-Davidson’s IGNITE program, working as part of the supply chain management team from June through December. The industrial engineering technology major handled data reporting for parts and accessories, which included looking at how many parts were sold to determine the potential for any defects.

“We looked at the data, identified those parts, called them back from the field if need be, or did a root cause analysis with the claims we received from the dealers,” Okeiga said. “We then would implement solutions, and that could be speaking with suppliers about making defective parts not to specifications or dealer education in teaching them how to use the product.”

Okeiga said the co-op came about when he heard a loud noise while attending the National Society of Black Engineers national conference in Detroit.

“I was actually talking to GE,” he said. “I heard this motorcycle sound, and I thought ‘what in the world is going on.’ I just walked over there and started talking to them.”

After cramming for an interview to learn all he could about supply chain management and the company in two hours, he received an offer later that day to come to Milwaukee for the co-op. Though excited, Okeiga admitted uncertainty about taking the position because his graduation date would be delayed six months.

Eddie Okeiga stands next to motorcycles during his co-op with Harley-Davidson.

“I talked to my parents, and they told me it (the co-op) would be better than four years of college,” he said. “They said I was going to graduate with an opportunity to possibly join the company, and if not, I would have that experience on my resume to get another good job.”

Okeiga said he took full advantage of the opportunity at Harley-Davidson. He worked hard, learned new techniques and programs, talked to executives of the company — including an email exchange with the company CEO — and eventually became a leader in meetings.

“I went above and beyond what was required of me,” he said. “You have this one opportunity. You never know if you’re going to get another one, so do all you can.”

Okeiga said he learned two important skills while on the co-op. One was confidence.

“Building confidence and getting over fears, those are the best skills I learned while I was there,” he said. “Be the boss until someone tells you you’re not.”

The other skill he said he learned was the ability to get out of his comfort zone and be on his own.

“You learn so much about yourself. You’re able to focus on more of the things you want to do,” he said. “You leave your niche for a little bit where you can be influenced and just start fresh. That’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I came back with confidence in who I am as a person and what I want and what I stand for.”

He said students should not get discouraged if they get turned down for internships and co-ops.

Eddie Okeiga stands next to Harley-Davidson’s Live Wire electric motorcycle during his co-op.

“I can’t tell you how many places I applied to,” Okeiga said. “I had to review my strategy.”

That included meetings with advisors and professors. ECU Career Services as well as the Career Development and Leadership Center can help students find internship and co-op opportunities, and also help them be better prepared to obtain those positions through improved resumes and practice interviews.

Daniel Stevens, assistant director for ECU Career Services, said internships and co-ops provide students educational and financial benefits.

“For some students, these learning experiences lead to higher starting salaries after graduation,” Stevens said. “Selective employers often only hire students who have completed a co-op or internship, and some employers recruit students from their co-op programs without even conducting interviews. The work experience of internships and co-ops adds rich context to academic learning.”

For Okeiga, his experience paid off with a recommendation for a full-time position as well as opportunities with other companies.

“I’m just trying to get a diverse background so when I do graduate, I can choose what I want to do,” he said. “The ball is in my court. I can pick and choose who I want to talk to. With all this experience under my belt, I feel like I don’t have to settle for something that I don’t feel is right for me or isn’t the culture or the community I want to be a part of.”

And as for that motorcycle?

“I’m going to get one in the fall,” Okeiga said. “I was going to get one this spring, but I wasn’t sure where I was going to be this summer. I didn’t want to get one for two months and then have to leave, so Harley got me.”

– by Ken Buday