For 41 years, the automotive program at Technology Center of DuPage has positively affected the lives of countless high school students, including dozens of female students welcomed into a career path less traveled by women.
Ably led by coordinator Dominic Pacenti and three other instructors, the automotive program not only focuses on vital technical skills but also on soft employment skills, including critical thinking and customer service.
Though available for one or two years, a two-year enrollment offers maximum benefit, with dual credit (high school and college credit) and the opportunity to qualify to take various Automotive Service Excellence certification exams.
Kathleen Tyndall, who graduated in 1979 from Lake Park High School, was the first female student to blaze the trail. She enrolled to learn how to fix her own car, but wound up finding a career, going on to Ferris State University in Michigan for degrees in auto tech and automotive management.
Tyndall was one of the first women in the nation to achieve Gold Master Level Technician certification. After a few years in the technical field, she went into management at American Honda, serving today as the national sales manager for Honda's marine division.
This year, eight young women are among Automotive Technology's 144 students. Six are in their first year, rotating through engine design, operation and diagnostics; then tackling brakes, electrical, steering and suspension systems.
Second-year instructor Doug Schlachter observes that female students are generally more meticulous and, when troubleshooting, more willing to consult the service manual first before taking something apart.
"They feel motivated to work harder to prove themselves," he adds.
These students know that the automotive industry is still male-dominated, with women holding only 2 percent of service technician jobs, one in five engineering jobs and 16 percent of senior management positions.
Two of Schlachter's advanced students are seniors Lauren Mirabella and Cayla Fuechsl, both from Wheaton Warrenville South. They are learning fuel systems, transmissions, 4WD, emission controls and computer engine controls, while applying skills developed their first year by working on customer vehicles.
It's encouraging that both young women find their male classmates, friends and family members are supportive of their nontraditional career choice.
"My friends want me to fix their cars, Fuechsl said, laughing. She plans on pursuing a military career, specializing in diesel technology.
Mirabella reported, "I just bought a project car to work on. My mom's friends think it's awesome I am doing something so different."
She plans to go to Southern Illinois University and is excited that a TCD alum -- Jessica Suda -- may be one of her instructors.
Suda, a 2007 alum from Glenbard South, was a quiet student whose talent and drive blossomed in the class. Her TCD instructors encouraged her to apply to SIU's automotive program.
"They told me they knew I could do it and be successful," she recalls, which turned out to be prophetic. Suda -- who had not taken calculus in high school -- graduated from Southern with a double major in automotive technology and electrical engineering and a minor in mathematics. It was difficult, but she was motivated.
"As much as I enjoy diagnostics," she recently explained to Pacenti, "I discovered I really want to be part of a team designing and developing new automotive systems."
To that end, Suda entered the SIU master's program in computer engineering. She then received a welcome job offer: SIU tapped her to be its first female assistant instructor in automotive technology. She started this fall, while continuing her master's program. Suda emailed Pacenti with the news.
"I'm excited, happy, and appreciative of everyone who helped me along during my start at TCD," she wrote.
Girls and guys interested in Automotive Technology, or one of our other 19 career electives, are invited to visit TCD. Many of our participating high schools are bringing sophomores and juniors on Explore TCD field trips Dec. 3 and 9, spending the morning observing fellow students engaged in this unique hands-on learning environment.
Parents and students can also arrange a tour with Kathy Rosenwinkel at (630) 691-7572, or attend our evening Community Open House on Jan. 20. Visit tcdupage.org for information.
• Dr. Alf Logan is the interim director of the DuPage Area Occupational Education System, the governing body for Technology Center of DuPage and other CTE delivery sites in the region.