Alumni Profile - Steve Cunningham
Steve Cunningham, alum from one of the very first graduating classes (1970) of Sauk Valley Community College, believes that his AAS Mechanical Engineering Technology degree has opened doors for him during his entire career journey to his present position as Technical Information Supervisor at Elgin Sweeper Company. Among other things this company manufactures street sweepers and during Cunningham’s six-year tenure with the company he has found his way across the world including such countries as Turkey, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Greenland, UK, Spain and France.
Sauk Valley Community College was Cunningham’s second attempt at postsecondary high school training. “After high school I went immediately to Illinois D.O.T. and went through a brief summer training program and became a technician with the Highway Department, but I was intent on something more mechanical …The lure of an education at Sauk pulled me in” he explains.
After graduation, the first door that opened for Cunningham was with Caterpillar in Peoria, but before he got finished with his two-year in-house training his draft number came up and he found himself in the military. When asked if he thought Sauk’s degree was the reason he was hired at Caterpillar says, “Yes, definitely. It had prepared me well…they had policies and procedures they wanted you to know in terms of drafting and standards and I had the background from Sauk. Had a person gone in without that background, you would have been kind of lost. Yes, I felt well prepared for the position they gave me there.”
After the military, even though the job at Caterpillar was still open to Cunningham, he found himself in a position to farm which in turn led him back to Sauk Valley Community College. “I used my GI Bill to take all the Ag classes that were available at Sauk. I’ll never forget sitting in the first one with Norm Spencer and he sometimes asked rather elementary questions to see how much we knew and one of them was name five bean herbicides and five corn herbicides and I couldn’t do it because I had been out of that loop.”
Cunningham explains that during those farming years, he never really gave his degree much thought, but when the farming business went through tough times, and it was time to get a job off the farm, the degree once again surfaced. “I had not thought much about my degree… but eventually I ended up going to Woods Equipment, and they specifically wanted a degree and I had it. I didn’t have many computer skills but the person that hired me wanted someone with a degree who did understand how things worked” explained Cunningham.
So when asked if he truly thought that his degree had opened doors for him, Cunningham explained, “They (the companies who employed him) did want a degree. It’s interesting they still do today for this position (at Elgin Sweeper Co.). At least an Associate Degree. I really thought my 30-year-old degree was pretty worthless, but it wasn’t and even today as I look at some of the Bachelor completion programs out there that still pretty much would work. I’m still not as interested in doing that.”
When asked to think back to his years at Sauk, he remembers that the instructors were very good and helpful. “Especially on the technical side --all the classes at that time, the mechanical classes and technical stuff were in the Kings Welding Building in Rock Falls. We would go there then back to the River Campus then back to Rock Falls, then you’d go to Morrison for some of the classes that were in factories at that time. So we did a lot of driving, I do remember that, but it was good. The instructors were very helpful.”
The number one thing that Cunningham remembers about Sauk is that it was there for him when he needed it. “Sauk gave me the opportunity for a degree. For a person, I look back and I guess I had minimal educational preparation for College, yet it (Sauk) was there for me. I had minimal dollars to spend as my folks couldn’t afford to send me to whatever I did was up to me. Even in that day, it was affordable and convenient and addressed the students who did not come with College qualifications.”
Cunningham continues, “I guess I feel fortunate that I was in a spot when a community college was available to me because if it had been two or three years earlier that option wouldn’t have been there. Sauk offered me an opportunity that has turned out be really important in my life. Even though at the time, I didn’t know how important it would be.”