Diesel Student Proves It's Never Too Late

TMCC Diesel student Jamie Mackel in the diesel lab at the Applied Technologies Center on Edison Way.
Rebecca A. Eckland

TMCC student Jamie Mackel will graduate with his associate’s degree in Diesel at the end of Fall 2022, an accomplishment that Mackel said he never thought would be in his future. “I’ve been in and out of the [justice] system since I was thirteen. That is why there have been a lot of closed doors in my life,” he said. 

Mackel’s work experience has been in fields that utilize physical labor, such as construction and mining. Most recently, he worked full-time as a CO2 Laser Operator at a turbine company that built aircraft engines. Before that, he was a process mechanic who also worked in landscaping, carpentry, and heavy-equipment operators. 

These were careers in which Mackel could become invisible. “I’ve always thought as long as I’m under a hood and behind the scenes doing some kind of background work, in those kinds of spaces not as many doors would be closed for me because of my history.” 

Yet, in summer 2021, a friend encouraged Mackel to get in touch with Camille Vega, who oversees the Educational Partnership Programs at TMCC. The suggestion caused Mackel to pause; he’d only been considering attending a trade school, perhaps to pursue training in welding. 

“I gave Camille a call, and she guided me in the direction of what I wanted to do, and not necessarily what I thought I needed to do,” Mackel explained. “We explored the avenues of what I wanted to take. We decided on the Diesel Program because I like working on [engines], and it is an industry I felt like I could succeed in.” 

Vega also explained what supports—including financial aid—could help Mackel pursue his education. These supports are vital to those who have been what Vega calls “justice-impacted.” “Just because someone was in prison twenty years ago doesn’t mean that the stigma from that experience is gone. The stigma can follow someone for many, many years. We can't make that go away, but what we can do, we can give you as much [education, training and support] as we can so that it doesn’t impact you as much as it could.” 

For Mackel, even pursuing a degree has brought many positive changes to his life. “I never thought I’d be in school doing something that could open doors pretty much everywhere,” he said.

Making the Decision to Commit to Education

Like many TMCC students, Mackel faced barriers to his education: at 44 years old, he had other obligations which included supporting his children and, at the time, working a full-time job. “In making the decision to jump full-time into school, I knew I didn’t have the time to stretch education out for two or three years,” he said. 

That was also paired with Mackel’s experience of education in his younger years. “Granted, I was a knucklehead growing up, but teachers would just put me in a corner and say: ‘don't disturb my class.’ And that was it, that was my whole experience. And so, when I thought about coming back to school [I thought] this was going to be scary.” 

Yet, Mackel decided to commit his decision to the TMCC Diesel Program. He quit his full-time job, and thanks to Vega’s insights on all the support through scholarships and other financial aid available for nontraditional students like Mackel, he was able to focus exclusively on his education. “I can’t work and go to school, that balance is hard for me. Instead, I know how I am, and when I commit myself to something, it’s 100% and it takes up all of my time,” he said. 

Mackel started taking Diesel classes in June 2021. In Fall 2021, he attended classes from 9 a.m.–9 p.m., which included attending three labs a day. The balance between classroom and lab-learning—with most of the learning happening in the lab—catered to Mackel’s learning style. According to Diesel Instructor Kyle Smith, 85–90% of learning occurs in the hands-on environment of the lab where students can apply the skills they’ve reviewed in the classroom.

Another aspect of the program that appeals to Mackel is the accessibility of class materials. Instead of relying on textbooks, many of the materials are online... and free of cost. This, said Smith, is by design. “This past year, we’ve slowly been weeding out textbooks from our diesel classes,” he said, explaining that the classes are utilizing Open Educational Resources [OER] electronic sources that are also used by professionals in the industry. “By Fall 2022—minus one workbook—we will have zero textbooks in our diesel classes.” This, he said, will keep the students focused on the material that they will need to know in the first 5–10 years of their employment as diesel mechanics and pave the way to further training in the industry. 

Mackel, said Smith, is a stellar student who has a bright future ahead of him. 

Failure—or giving up—aren't options for Mackel. “It’s just me... so if I fail, that’s it,” he said. “And it’s the challenge of staying committed even when financial situations come up and I ask myself if I should just get a job... I know how to do a lot of different things. But, all of my past experience involves a lot of physical labor, and that’s time consuming. And I’m not a young man anymore.” 

Meeting Milestones and Success

Even though completing an entire degree program in a year sounds like a challenge, it’s something Mackel is dedicated to completing. “It’s like I tell everybody: there’s nothing to it, just do it,” he said. 

Mackel will walk at the 2022 Commencement Ceremony in May, having earned two Certificate of Achievements from the Diesel Program. Yet, when Vega told him he was just four classes away from an Associate of Applied Science degree, Mackel decided to go for it. “I’ve got positive reinforcements,” he said. “The instructors in the program, every time I see them, they tell me I’m doing a good job.” 

In addition to supporting students on their journey to a certificate, degree and a career, Smith also helps students to discover a work/school/life balance for their particular situation. Smith said that there are typically two ways that students choose to navigate the diesel program: a “paced” approach that includes working part-time while going to school or an intense course of study in a short amount of time followed by full-time employment upon graduation. Most students seek the part-time or apprenticeship opportunity with local industry partners where they can apply their learning in the “real world” with an employer who is willing to work around their school schedule. 

A group of 20 students smile for a photo in the diesel lab.

Students in TMCC's Diesel Program can choose to take classes part-time while working part-time for a local employer, or like Mackel, can dedicate themselves to completing the Associate of Applied Science degree in one year.

“That way, the learning is reinforced and the training that they have with the employer is even more valuable,” said Smith. “And when the students graduate, they can move into a full-time position and that transition is seamless.” This has led to a synergistic relationship between the diesel program and local industry, and one that’s making a win-win situation for most younger students. The other option, typically taken by older or returning students, takes a year to complete the program and equates to an intense focus on learning and training with the prospect of full time employment at the end. 

“Jamie is in the latter category,” said Smith. “He’s taking all the classes in the program in a year, and he doesn’t have time for employment. But, this approach is advantageous for him, because he’s been through life, and he knows what he wants to do. He can just focus on it, and get it done.” 

Mackel is on-track to receive his Associate of Applied Science degree at the end of the Fall 2022 semester, and it’s a milestone he won’t soon forget. “This opportunity has definitely benefited my life...the pay-off is going to be a stable career that will enable me to provide a comfortable life for my family. But, in the meantime, it’s just the positive vibe I have now. This is such a breath of fresh air. My life has had a lot of closed doors, and the decision to come to TMCC is helping me to set a positive example for my kids so they can see that I finished school. And, they can also see that it’s never too late.”

For more information about studying Diesel at TMCC, contact the Applied Technologies Department at 775-856-5300.