New program gives ECU engineering students opportunities at FRC East

If East Carolina University engineering students in a new program need a reminder of the importance of their work, they simply need to look up and listen. The roar of military jets in the sky above Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point serves as an aerial exclamation point.

“To me, being able to support the Department of Defense is an important role as we are directly having an impact on our military,” ECU senior Joseph Ha said. “We are responsible (for producing) the highest quality products to keep our warfighters safe (while ensuring) they are successful in the completion of their mission. I feel a sense of pride to be working within the Department of Defense.”

Ha is one of 10 ECU students participating in the Engineering Developmental Assistance Program (EDAP) through Fleet Readiness Center East at Cherry Point. FRC East is an aircraft maintenance and repair facility tasked with keeping America’s military aircraft such as the AV-8B Harrier, V-22 Osprey, KC-130 Hercules and the fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in the air and operating at peak efficiency.

ECU engineering students Joseph Ha, left, and Tristan Wagoner, stand outside Fleet Readiness Center East. Ha and Wagoner both said they are enjoying putting their classroom knowledge to good use as part of the new Engineering Developmental Assistance Program. (Contributed photo by FRC East)

“This job blows my mind every day,” said senior Tristan Wagoner, whose concentration is in electrical engineering. “The amount of work that goes into making them work and fly makes me appreciate the hard work all the artisans (FRC East workers) have done. I started to feel really small when I stepped inside a C-130. The artisans showed me the miles and miles of electrical work that they’ve done. The fact that human beings can create such amazing machines with just some metal and wire makes me believe that something supernatural had to occur for them to have been able to be thought of to begin with.”

The program’s main goal is to help ECU engineering students gain valuable experience through paid internships while providing FRC East with a future workforce of needed engineers. The depot counts more than 800 engineers among its nearly 3,800 employees. FRC East is the largest single employer of ECU engineering graduates.

Michael Borer, senior teaching instructor in the Department of Engineering, said FRC East contacted ECU in 2021 about expanding a partnership that has been strong since the engineering program began at ECU in 2004. He credits Brittany Cline, FRC East recruitment and development branch head and a 2016 ECU graduate, with her leadership in helping get the program up and running quickly.

“The EDAP program is just one of the important initiatives that the College of Engineering and Technology is implementing to strengthen an already robust partnership with FRC East,” Borer said. “Through the EDAP program the Department of Engineering is better able to achieve its goals of maximizing student success, serving the public and leading regional transformation.”

Cline said EDAP first began as a partnership with North Carolina State University’s Havelock campus to show local students the hands-on engineering opportunities available in the area.

“EDAP gives eastern North Carolina’s best and brightest engineering students the opportunity to see how their work can benefit our nation’s Marines and sailors, and provides a means for FRCE to invest in its community,” Cline said. “That community encompasses not just Havelock but the greater ENC region. We’re excited to expand the program to include East Carolina University and build upon the relationship our organizations have developed.”

The first cohort of ECU participants — seven mechanical and three electrical engineering students — began in May and will continue to work a minimum of 16 hours per week throughout the year. With successful completion of program requirements, EDAP participants receive tuition assistance while they complete their bachelor’s degrees, and about 90% of EDAP graduates are offered full-time employment at FRC East. Cline said FRC East sees a higher retention rate among hires that are already familiar with the area, so the program’s benefits are mutual.

East Carolina University students in the new EDAP program are getting the opportunity to work on military aircraft like the MV-22 Osprey, shown here at Fleet Readiness Center East at Cherry Point. (Contributed photo by FRC East)

Though the 10 ECU students started their internships just a couple of months ago, they have expressed positive reactions to the work they’re doing and the benefits of the program, Borer said.

“The education of the students participating in the EDAP program is greatly enhanced by this experiential learning experience,” Borer said. “They gain hands-on experience applying concepts they have learned in the classroom to problems experienced in everyday work life. Their development as engineers is significantly enhanced.

“The students also benefit from other features of the EDAP program such as tuition reimbursement, qualifying for various government benefits associated with being an FRC East employee and the opportunity to convert to a full-time employee upon graduation.”

Ha, who grew up just outside the base’s gates in Havelock, is familiar with Cherry Point and FRC East. With concentrations in both electrical and mechanical engineering, he hopes that being a part of the program will translate to a full-time position at the depot upon his graduation.

“The most fun part about being an intern is that everything is new, and it gives me a great learning opportunity,” Ha said. “I have enjoyed working on physical hardware within the avionics lab, seeing how the systems work and gaining experiences on troubleshooting.”

Ha has been working with the V-22 Osprey team this summer, finding the lessons he has learned at ECU valuable to his work experience.

“I have specifically been able to connect the concepts and ideas presented in the classroom to apply to the tasks given here,” he said. “It is always amazing to be up close to the aircraft and components.”

He said the program has exceeded his expectations.

“This is a great opportunity to learn and gain viable experiences that otherwise wouldn’t be seen in school or other places,” he said.

Wagoner, from Yadkinville, echoed those sentiments, saying he has enjoyed seeing the military aircraft up close as well as in the sky every day. He’s worked on publications that the Navy will use for maintenance and other procedures, and has seen the lessons he’s learned at ECU put into practice.

“The experience has been amazing so far,” he said. “There’s so much I’ve been able to see that I would never have been able to otherwise.

“The all-rounded engineering degree that we get really is pulling me through this internship so far. Today alone I’ve had to have full conversations with structural analysis engineers, materials engineers and electrical engineers on how to solve one problem. The degree that I’m getting at ECU makes me knowledgeable in all these areas so I can ask the experts all the right questions.”

He credits the workers at FRC East for making him feel welcome and said the experience he is gaining through the program should give him an advantage when he applies for jobs upon graduation. It also allows him to support America’s military.

“The DoD (Department of Defense) is a great organization and I’m happy to support them,” Wagoner said. “They gave me a chance to better myself, and I want to pay them back for it with the best work I can provide.”

Other students who are part of the first cohort from ECU to participate in the program include Ronald Bittiker, Mason Caroon, Bryan Miranda, Devon Rhodes, Randy Stallings, Evan Tosto, Austin Terry and Cole Williams.

Applications will be accepted in December for the next cohort of ECU EDAP students, who will begin in the summer of 2023.