Jon Hamm is first in his class, but even he will concede the competition was less than fierce.
Come Saturday, Hamm will become the first graduate of the St. Ambrose University Mechanical Engineering program. And, until next year, he will be the program's only graduate.
St. Ambrose degree in hand following Saturday's 1 p.m. commencement ceremonies at the iWireless Center in Moline, Ill. Hamm will follow a brother and several cousins into engineering, a profession his father encouraged him to pursue after working alongside engineers much of his working life.
Jon Hamm originally enrolled at St. Ambrose intending to major in industrial engineering, a strong second among his preferred fields of engineering study. Given an opportunity to play varsity volleyball at St. Ambrose as well, Hamm said SAU was an easy choice.
Then, in the second semester of his first year, his choice of schools became even easier to like with the news that mechanical engineering, Hamm's ideal major, would be introduced into the SAU curriculum
"When they said they were offering mechanical engineering, it was perfect," he said. "The day they mentioned it, I told them I was switching over."
Hamm was the only member of his first-year class who did so. And, so, for the past two years, he has been a cohort of one, advancing through newly created classes on his own.
Behind Hamm, the program is growing. Jodi Prosise, PhD, an associate professor of engineering, said an additional 17 students declared themselves mechanical engineering majors this past year. She expects the number will approach 30 by fall.
Hamm, however, always will be the program's first graduate.
"It is kind of cool," said the young man from Mokena, Ill. "It is something to be proud of, being the first one, and to almost do it by yourself."
Hamm employs the term "almost," because he knows he benefited greatly from the individual instruction he received from Prosise, Assistant Professor Joshua Drake, PhD, and others.
"I can't say I haven't had any help," he stressed. "I didn't have a study group to work with, so I couldn't call up a friend and say ‘Hey, do you know how to do this homework?' But the professors were always willing to help, often responding to emails as late as 9 at night."
In the classroom, there was only Hamm to be called upon, which could be daunting. Interaction and discussion with fellow students is a valuable part of the learning process, after all. On the other hand, Hamm always had his professors' full attention.
"I think he probably learned the lessons more than he would have otherwise," Prosise said. "But it was harder to get there.''
Hamm couldn't exactly move through his courses at his own pace. There were curriculum guidelines to be met. Still, Prosise said, "If he was struggling with something, we were able to spend a little more time on that and not worry about losing the attention of other students."
As the initial graduate, Hamm also was able to provide Prosise and the engineering faculty feedback that will improve classes, labs and projects going forward.
"For example, the senior design program we just completed with him was definitely our first go at it, and so seeing what he struggled with, and what he thought was good about it, is going to help us pick projects and develop relationships with employers in the future," Prosise said.
Hamm's senior design project was a considerable undertaking. He was charged with evaluating an important safety issue at the Exelon Nuclear Power Plant in Cordova, Ill. His findings serve to confirm previous research, and is information the Exelon will keep on file. In addition, he worked as an engineering intern at the Deere and Co. during his senior year.
Prosise said the program was introduced precisely because of a need for mechanical engineers at local companies such as Deere and Exelon. Hamm hopes to land a position with one of the two post-commencement, and you'd better believe his class rank will come up in interviews.