Family affair – father and son navigate college journey together at PNW

June 27, 2024
Jacob Wheeler Sr. and Jacob Wheeler Jr. stand together in commencement regalia. They are holding their diplomas.

Spring commencement at Purdue University Northwest (PNW) found Jacob “Jake” Wheeler Sr. and Jacob Wheeler Jr. in a unique position. The father and son duo shared the momentous occasion when they both graduated on the same day.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” remembers the elder Wheeler. “To be able to share that experience with my son is something I will always remember.” Wheeler Jr. agrees, “Walking the stage together was a moment I’ll never forget. I still catch myself watching the video of us being called back-to-back.”

The morning of commencement, Wheeler Sr. found himself reflecting on what brought him and his son to this moment. “As we drove together to the ceremony, just the two of us, all I could think about was the day he was born and all the experiences we’ve shared since and how lucky I was to be sharing this achievement with him.” He admits to being worried early on of overshadowing his son’s accomplishment. “He didn’t see it that way,” he says. “He was excited that we were doing it together – which made me even prouder of the man he has become.”

Both Wheelers earned their degrees from the College of Technology— Wheeler Jr. a bachelor of science degree in Construction Engineering and Management Technology (CEMT) and Wheeler Sr. a bachelor of science degree in the Organizational Leadership and Supervision (OLS) Pathway Program. The OLS program, created in collaboration with the Construction Advancement Foundation (CAF) and Tonn and Blank Construction, offers working industry professionals the opportunity to obtain a degree and gain a competitive career advantage.

I can’t say enough about the department, the professors and all they did to help us feel comfortable and get through the program.

Jacob “Jake” Wheeler Sr.

Though their decisions to attend PNW simultaneously was coincidental, it led to a unique father-son experience. The catalyst for Wheeler Sr.’s return to school was two-fold. The company he works for played a role in shaping the OLS program at PNW. He is the safety director at Tonn and Blank Construction and was encouraged by the company’s president to be a part of the program’s first cohort. He also saw it as an opportunity to check off a long-standing personal goal. After high school, he attended college on a baseball scholarship but didn’t complete his degree. When this opportunity presented itself, he decided it was time to finish what he started years earlier.

For Wheeler Jr. the decision to enroll in PNW’s CEMT program was driven by his interest in the construction field and the university’s proximity to home. Initially a business marketing major, he switched to CEMT after realizing his true passion was in the construction industry, a field his father inspired him to explore.

Jacob Wheeler Sr. and Jacob Wheeler Jr. sit next to each other in a booth when Jr. was still a child. There are ice cream sundaes in front of them.

The journey for the Hebron natives wasn’t without challenges. The elder Wheeler had not been in a classroom in over 20 years and initially found navigating new learning platforms, a full-time job and a family daunting. “PNW was really accommodating to those of us with full-time jobs and families,” he says. “I can’t say enough about the department, the professors and all they did to help us feel comfortable and get through the program.” His son was also a huge support. “I leaned on my son as the classroom was very different from what I remembered,” he continues. “He was a huge help and the whole process brought us even closer together.”

The younger Wheeler faced his own set of challenges – balancing an internship at Rieth-Riley Construction, his academic workload and personal life. When the internship turned into a job, he was able to blend theoretical knowledge with real-world experience. “When I was hired for the fall and winter season, I went back and forth between school and work just consuming knowledge,” he says. “Finding a balance between work and school was a challenge. It took me about a year to find a happy, healthy medium between the two and that was extremely important.”

It meant a lot to me, and definitely to him, to share this experience.

Jacob Wheeler Jr.

Looking to the future, Wheeler Jr. is enrolled in the College of Technology’s 4+1 program which allows qualified students to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in an accelerated plan of study. He will work towards completing his master’s degree over the next year while working full-time as a project superintendent at Rieth-Riley Construction.

As Wheeler Sr. continues his career at Tonn and Blank Construction, he is considering furthering his education by pursuing a master’s degree and looking forward to working with Chandramouli V. Chandramouli, department chair for Construction Science and Organizational Leadership, to promote PNW’s OLS program.

Both have expressed a desire to give back to PNW through teaching or mentoring students in the future.

“It meant a lot to me, and definitely to him, to share this experience,” says Wheeler Jr. Wheeler Sr. agrees, “This was an amazing experience.”

Jacob Wheeler Sr. and Jacob Wheeler Jr. stand together in commencement regalia.