More than half a century later, walking in graduation 'the completion of a journey'

5/17/2015

Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS

George Nelm’s walk across the stage wasn’t a long one.

But for the 76-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz. resident, donning a cap and gown and picking up a diploma represented much more: “It's the completion of a journey,” he said.

Nelms (BSEE ’62) participated in the 2015 Engineering at Illinois graduation ceremony at Huff Hall and picked up the diploma he earned 53 years earlier.

Nelms, now 76 and a Scottsdale, Ariz., resident, took a less-than-straightforward path through undergraduate education, finally earning a degree in electrical engineering in 1962 from the University of Illinois. That path, though, didn’t allow him to participate in Illinois’ graduation ceremony, even though it prepared him for a successful, diverse career in engineering.

As a high-schooler growing up on the south side of Chicago, and attending a vocational high school; he’d never focused on college prep. As an undergrad, writing proper English was difficult for him. He couldn’t pass Rhetoric 200, a general education English requirement, despite taking it every semester.

It happened again during his final semester, which meant Nelms couldn’t walk in his class graduation ceremonies. He had to decide: would he stay at Illinois and try to pass? Or would he head back to Chicago, giving up his dream to become an engineer? He’d become a role model within his family and his community, and he didn’t want to disappoint those who were counting on him.

He stayed behind for summer school in 1962 and finally passed Rhetoric 200 before heading to RCA for his first engineering job.

Nelms went on to a successful career, working on satellite energy systems at RCA. He then went on to work in weapons systems at Honeywell, on pacemakers at Medtronic, in microprocessor and chip-handling systems, and even medical laboratory automation. He’s also done international consulting in technology and business development after retiring.

He believes his Illinois engineering degree allowed that success.

“It has opened the world to me,” he said. “I never realized how vast the world was or how many doors I could open by telling people I had a degree from the University of Illinois. I had envisioned myself as being a television repairman, and that would have been the scope of my world.”

Until his recent trip back to campus, Nelms never thought much about the challenges he overcame as an undergraduate. He realizes now how hard he worked. He hopes he can encourage others to do the same.

“You are always going to have obstacles in your life,” he said. “You must have a goal and continue to work towards that goal, to overcome them.”

Nelms invited some family members and friends to Illinois’ graduation ceremony, and wishes he could have shared the moment with his grandmother, parents, other members of his family, and many close friends from his neighborhood. He felt he had failed them more than half a century ago when he couldn’t walk with his class.

“Now, even though they're not here with me to take part in this moment in body,” Nelms said, “I do feel that they are here in spirit and now I have completed my journey. It gives me closure.”