“Austin Peay offers so many opportunities outside of class to help students along the way to find better job opportunities and to make better career choices.”
Major: Computer Science, graduated in May 2019
Hometown: Clarksville, Tennessee
Job after graduation: Software development engineer for Clearwater Analytics in Boise, Idaho
Before he enrolled at Austin Peay State University for the second time in his life, Nathan Nickelson had a sudden realization.
“I realized I’m too smart for this, I can do better than this. If I don’t do something about it, if I don’t make a change …,” he said, trailing off. “I needed to get something that focused me, moved me forward, got me in the right direction.”
Nickelson first enrolled at Austin Peay in 1994 on a music scholarship, but “personal life got in the way, things got rough, basically I cut that short,” he said. “I bopped around here and there, essentially wandering aimlessly. I was making a living wage, but I wasn’t really moving forward with it.”
He re-enrolled at Austin Peay, this time studying computer science and applied mathematics, in 2015. And this May, shortly after his 44th birthday, he graduated before moving to Boise, Idaho, to start his new career, working as a software development engineer for Clearwater Analytics.
“I’ve always been good at math, and computers and technology are just going nuts right now,” he said. “I wanted to pick a degree I thought was challenging, I’d be interested in and would be applicable out there in the world.”
One of the secrets to Nickelson’s success, in addition to studying hard, was he actively sought opportunities outside the classroom. He worked at the GIS Center, for example, and he applied for two Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) through the National Science Foundation.
The Austin Peay Department of Computer Science and Information Technology hosts yearly coding camps for local high school students.
The first REU took him to Auburn University in 2017 where he worked on self-flying drone simulation.
“They shipped me out there, put me up, fed me and paid me to do research on something I already liked doing,” Nickelson said in disbelief.
“That was probably the first moment I started changing from a student to looking forward to what I was going to do after being a student.”
When he applied for REUs the following year, he wanted a more obscure location. The summer of 2018 took him to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to study how global warming affects the arctic, specifically the water cycle.
“Alaska was gorgeous in the summertime,” Nickelson said. “It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
“It was just insane the number of scientists we had in our lab to help us understand what it was to be a scientist."
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ADVICE FOR UNDERGRADUATES
Nickelson offers this advice to undergraduates:
- Show the faculty you’re working hard.
- Know your professors by their first name. “Make sure you know them. Make sure they know you.”
- Sell yourself. Understand your strengths. “Highlight your strengths. Demonstrate you’re working on shoring up your weaknesses.”
- Actively seek undergraduate research opportunities or internships.
“Austin Peay offers so many opportunities outside of class to help students along the way to find better job opportunities and to make better career choices,” Nickelson said.