KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Nearly 40 years ago, James Rhodes began his academic journey at Western Michigan University—a journey that resulted in not only a successful computer engineering career but also in four degrees from Western. And this year, he’s again back again—this time as both a doctoral degree candidate and a faculty specialist.
“I always liked school ever since kindergarten. School is what I do,” says Rhodes, whose love of learning and STEM subjects would eventually lead him to Western.
Rhodes’ journey started as a high school student in the early 1980s. His mom was working at AT&T (then Michigan Bell) and shared her professional insight into the future of computers, telling Rhodes he would find success in the field. That encouragement and an ACT math score in the top 10th percentile led Rhodes to Western’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and his first computer science courses.
"Computer scientists are in high demand—always have been and always will be. Artificial intelligence and the future, such as automated vehicles and robots, mean job security—the biggest benefit of the computer science career. Students will have opportunities to work wherever they want in exciting positions and to negotiate good salaries."—Rhodes
But before completing his bachelor’s degree, he wanted to launch his information technology (IT) career and make sure it was right for him. He accepted a position with Texas Instruments in a government defense systems group working on projects that required a secret clearance.
“It is true that by the time consumers get particular technology, the technology the government uses has way surpassed it. I was working on GPS tracking systems back in 1984,” says Rhodes of his time with the company. After seven years, Rhodes completed his bachelor’s degree and continued working in management information systems for Bissell Vacuum Company and Vickers (now Eaton Corporation).
Eventually, Rhodes began his own consulting business, working on Y2K compliance projects for companies. As contractor for multiple businesses, he had no overhead and no employees, but he was paying large expenses for a CPA to manage his income and taxes.
“My only expenses were CPA fees because I had no understanding of accounting,” explains Rhodes. “So, I went to an introductory accounting course to get a sense of accounting so I could minimize those CPA fees.”
And, true to form, he loved that course and went on to earn a Master of Science in Accountancy from Western in 2004.
With both a technical degree and a business degree, Rhodes next found success in a highly technical side of the airline industry: operations performance and statistics. Beginning at U.S. Airways, Rhodes worked through mergers that required his unique expertise.
“U.S. Airways operated on a main frame; America West had a SQL server. I was tasked with creating a central database of the two, creating reports from both, individually or combined,” says Rhodes. For his effort, he earned the first of two Chairman’s Awards from the airline giant. The second award came for his work harnessing the data to track customer flight misconnects in a way that the company leaders could work to improve the customer experience.
After 11 years in the airline industry, Rhodes came back to WMU to advance his interest in cybersecurity, earning master’s degrees in both computer science and cybersecurity.
Now he is on campus again, sharing his love of learning with students as a faculty specialist in computer science while simultaneously pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science. His dissertation proposal, "An Efficient Priority Queue," is already approved.
“In the classroom, I love to share my personal experiences to benefit students,” says Rhodes. "I know what it takes to be a successful computer engineer and can share those pointers. I love teaching. It’s one thing to understand the concepts of complicated, technical subjects, but you really must have a firm handle on the material to effectively explain it to someone else.”
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