At the Mackinac Policy Conference this week, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer spoke about retaining talent — and not losing it to places like Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas — being key for economic growth in the state.
Recent Washtenaw Community College graduate Karl Owen has flipped that script.
A native of San Jose, the largest city in California’s Silicon Valley, Owen came to WCC to capitalize on its transfer relationship with the nearby University of Michigan. And he has no plans to leave the state any time soon.
Owen is taking the 3.83 GPA he earned while completing a WCC Pre-Engineering Science Transfer associate degree across town to the University of Michigan, where he’ll study Industrial and Operations Engineering beginning this fall.
“I’m much happier here in Michigan than California,” Owen said. “I have a bigger place to live that costs much less. Plus, the wildlife is great and the people are pretty good. I think I’ll stay here if I can.”
Owen’s academic journey isn’t typical. He dropped out of high school, earned a GED and started working. Looking for more out of life, he started visiting military recruiters and enlisted in the Army in November 2007.
Before leaving the service in May 2015, Owen served three tours in Afghanistan as a multiple launch rocket crew member and as a forward observer responsible for gathering intelligence and providing target data to combat team.
While in the Army, Owen was diagnosed with ADHD. It helped him understand his academic struggles as a youth, but more importantly opened up a world of possibilities for the future.
“I compare first taking ADHD medication to someone with bad eyesight putting on glasses for the first time,” Owen said. “Plus, as an adult, you take life more seriously so I was able to do much better in college than I ever did in high school.”
After attempting to split his focus between school and work for a couple years back in California, Owen decided it was time to go all-in on pursuing his academic goals. Some research into his desired career path showed his best options were to stay close to home and attend San Jose State University or pick up everything and move across the country to the University of Michigan or the University of Georgia.
It was during a video conversation with U-M Veterans and Military Services Program director Philip Larson that he learned how WCC is a frequent destination for veterans looking to develop the academic background to transfer into Michigan Engineering.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Owen credits director Carol Osborne and the staff at the WCC Wadhams Veterans Center for helping to ease his transition.
“When I had issues with my Veteran Affairs benefits or anything else school-related, I could always ask them for advice,” he said. “Oftentimes, Carol would fix the issues, which was a huge help since it gave me more time to focus on my schoolwork.”
The Veterans Center and involvement in multiple student organizations — including the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and the college’s STEM Scholars Program — helped him get to know more people in his new hometown.
“Having shared experiences with other veterans and other STEM Scholars was pretty awesome and very helpful,” Owen said.