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Engineering a Career

J.K. Rose | December 12, 2023

Impact | Hormel Inspired Pathways

The Hormel Foods Inspired Pathways program helps an Illinois student avoid debt on her way to an engineering degree.

College by the Numbers

Although Matea had initially planned to attend a four-year school for her entire college career, she ran the numbers and realized she’d accrue a debt of tens of thousands of dollars by the time she graduated, even with scholarships. Then her dad, who works as a quality control auditor at Rochelle Foods, told her about the Hormel Foods Inspired Pathways scholarships, which pay community college tuition for the children of company employees.

Now, instead of going into the red, Matea is actually growing her bank account. In addition to taking a full course load at Rock Valley, she works evenings in the food services department of the local hospital, planning healthy menus for patients. And to further economize, she lives at home for free.

It’s just perfect for me in every way.

Hormel Inspired Pathways recipient Matea Zec on her college journey

The experience wasn’t without hiccups, however. Rock Valley College mistakenly sent Matea a tuition bill and then placed a hold on her registration, which barred her from signing up for classes. Inspired Pathways Director Nate Lockett stepped in to sort out the problem with the registrar’s office and get Matea into her preferred classes.

Matea’s studies have ranged from calculus to chemistry to differential equations, but her favorite so far has been “Introduction to Engineering,” which explores “different engineering disciplines, the role of the engineer in society, the engineering approach to problem solving and the engineering design process.” In the lab portion of the class, students reverse-engineer products to puzzle out how they were designed.

One advantage of studying at a community college, Matea says, is the diversity of the student body: Some of her classmates are seasoned engineers who are returning for a second degree or to update their skill sets. “Just hearing about their experience in the field is super awesome,” she says.

Engineering salaries are pretty awesome too, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics: the median engineering salary is $84,000 – almost double the annual wage for all other occupations.

Matea’s dream job lies at the intersection of clean energy and cool design. “Honestly, if Tesla was to offer me a job, I would immediately take it,” she says with a laugh. “But, you know, we’ll see where things go.”