Graduate David McFarland balances multiple roles while earning degree in mechanical engineering
UMSL/WU Joint Program student juggled classes, an internship, playing on the WU ice hockey team and a young family while earning a degree in mechanical engineering
Juggling engineering studies with an internship, teaching assistantship, student leadership activities and playing on a championship ice hockey team would seem like a lot for any University of Missouri–St. Louis student.
But for graduating senior David McFarland, it almost seems miraculous when you add in the mix that he is a 36-year-old married father of two small children.
“I worked for eight years in two different industries before deciding to take a leap and go back to complete a mechanical engineering degree,” McFarland said. “It was extremely difficult to make the decision to stop my career to go back to school. I knew that I would be re-entering the workforce older than most of the new engineering graduates and that I would be starting over again in a new career. Talking to those who are most important to me about the decision and making a full commitment to success is what helped me.”
McFarland graduated from UMSL this month with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He earned his first bachelor’s degree – in agribusiness management – from the University of Missouri–Columbia in 2010.
McFarland was working in his family’s business, Packaging Systems, Inc., when he took that leap of faith to continue his education in the UMSL/Washington University Joint Undergraduate Engineering Program in 2017.
“I had this nagging desire to become an engineer,” McFarland said. “I was torn because I was recently married, I was older and had been working for eight years and thought that it might be too late to go back to college and totally change career paths. My wife, Katie, was incredibly supportive and encouraging of me. My dad, Dennis McFarland, also played a big role in my decision. He encouraged me and told me that if I had my wife’s support that it was better to take the opportunity and try the open door than to get to the end of my career and always wonder ‘what if?’”
All McFarland had to do was follow his family tree to find his way to UMSL. His grandmother, Betty Creason, was a high school classmate and a friend of Chancellor Emerita Blanche Touhill. McFarland’s mother, Anna (Foster) McFarland, graduated from UMSL in 1972. His aunt, Donna (Foster) Martin, earned her degree in 1974. His brother, Tim McFarland, and sister, Mary Rose McFarland, are also graduates of the university.
With his sight on UMSL, McFarland enrolled in the joint engineering program. JEP students complete two years of study on the UMSL campus before transitioning to the Washington University campus to complete upper-level engineering classes.
“I very much feel that my education at UMSL and Wash U. gave me a great foundation for my career,” McFarland said. “A great advantage to the joint engineering program is that when students get into the upper level, courses are in the evening. This is ideal for students to be able to pursue internship opportunities. Internships allow you to make money, but more importantly, they allow you to try different companies and industries to help you zone in on what you are looking for in a career when you graduate.”
Inspired by his father and uncle who are pilots and own airplanes, McFarland originally planned to use his engineering degree to work in the aviation industry. His first internship was at Georgian Aerospace before he switched gears to his current role in the mechanical HVAC and process piping industry as a project manager for Icon Mechanical.
“As an engineer, I am fascinated that human beings have created machines out of elements found on earth that can float in the sky and travel fast,” McFarland said. “After COVID hit, I saw the impact that it had on the aviation industry. I started to rethink my goal of pursuing a career in aviation. I wanted to find something more stable for my family.”
The decision paid off. McFarland’s position with Icon Mechanical will become full time when he graduates in May. McFarland said the leadership experience that he gained in the joint engineering program contributed to his success. He has been involved in JEP’s upper-level student advisory board and works as a teaching assistant.
JEP also supported McFarland by connecting him to the Boeing Mentorship Program, which pairs engineering students with a mentor from Boeing who can provide career guidance.
“The Boeing Mentorship Program was a great way for me to learn about what it is like to be an engineer at Boeing,” McFarland said. “My mentor was great, we met about once a month and talked about possible careers at Boeing, what it is like as you move through your career, what a typical day looks like at various points along your career, and all kinds of challenges and opportunities.”
McFarland, a St. Louis native who graduated from Christian Brothers College High School, describes himself as an avid outdoorsman who enjoys hunting and fishing. But he said his best time spent is with his family.
“My favorite hobby is my family,” he said. “While raising children can be a real challenge – especially when you are going to school full time in the evenings and working 40-50 hours per week at an internship – helping kids grow and learn is the ultimate joy. We were all kids at some point, and I find it to be a true blessing to be able to have a positive impact on a young child’s life.”
Even though he has kids, McFarland is still a kid at heart. McFarland played on the Washington University ice hockey team when he returned to college in his mid-thirties, resulting in being part of a Mid American Collegiate Hockey Association championship team. After playing two years for MU, he still had two years of eligibility left and was able to skate as a walk-on for Washington University. McFarland laughs when he recalls that none of his teammates knew his real age.
“I did not reveal my age until those questions started coming up during practices and I was asked directly,” he said. “My teammates were quite shocked when they found out that one of their teammates was 35 years old, married, owned a home and then had a child during the season.”