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Air Force Veteran Jonathan Wirkkala began his engineering studies online, transitioned to on-campus classes and found meaning as a student leader at UND

Air Force Veteran Jonathan Wirkkala began his electrical engineering studies at UND online, while still on active duty in South Korea. Following his transition to on-campus courses in 2019, he has helped build a water-storage system in rural Guatemala and found a calling for solving basic human needs through engineering. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

You may think that electricity and water don’t mix. But for Jonathan Wirkkala, an electrical engineering student at the University of North Dakota, they do. It took him some time, though, to realize that.

Inspired by his grandfather whose work involved room-sized computers, Wirkkala wanted a career that would let him tinker with machines. When he joined the U.S. Air Force out of high school, Wirkkala became an avionics technician. He fixed computers on aircrafts. Then while still on active duty, he enrolled in UND’s online bachelor’s program in electrical engineering, hoping to one day design the computers he repaired.

“I searched around online and found that the University of North Dakota is one of the few accredited schools that offers a completely online degree program for engineering,” Wirkkala said. Plus, “it was a hop, skip and a jump from where I grew up” in Hanover, Minn.

Wirkkala began his online studies while being stationed in South Korea about 2½ years before separating from the military. He immediately applied the knowledge he gained in his classes to his job. Even though he had never set foot on campus, he proudly wore UND-branded shirts and caps. And, Wirkkala felt supported. UND professors would reach out to him. The electrical engineering program would invite him to webinars and conferences. The University allowed his commander to proctor one of his exams.

Once he left the Air Force, Wirkkala shifted to in-person instruction in the spring of 2019. Facilitated by the UND Veteran & Military Services Office, the transition was easy, he said. “UND offered tons of resources,” he said. “I showed up and, three days later, I was in classes.”

And, on campus, Wirkkala’s career trajectory changed. Soon after he arrived in Grand Forks, he joined the UND student chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), later becoming the chapter’s president. Through the organization, Wirkkala and a group of fellow UND students from a variety of engineering disciplines embarked on a five-year project to build a water storage system for a small village in north-central Guatemala that lacked access to clean water.

Prior to COVID, Wirkkala’s team traveled to the Central American nation to assess the community’s needs. Following their visit, they spent months designing a solution with the help of faculty advisors and practicing engineers.

Today, because the students could not return to Guatemala due to the pandemic, a local contractor is building a water storage and purification system based off of the team’s blueprints.

“I really enjoy working with people and trying to solve basic human-needs issues,” Wirkkala said, adding that he is working on details such as the electronic control of water chlorination.

Having discovered the links between water management and electrical engineering, Wirkkala is now interning at AE2S, a Grand Forks-based engineering firm that specializes in water projects. “UND has altered where my career is going for the better,” he said. “It absolutely opened my eyes to new possibilities.”

For more Leaders in Action stories like this one, visit und.edu/leaders.