Engineering student's internship builds future while leaving permanent mark on Western campus

Contact: Erin Flynn
Zach Turner poses in front of piles of construction equipment outside the new student center.

Zach Turner stands outside the new student center, which is slated to open in fall 2022.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's new student center stands like a piece of artwork in the heart of campus; a grand structure with sprawling glass panels flanked by golden fins that cast shadows reminiscent of the canopies of Michigan's forests onto the ground below. It will be a hub of student activity when it opens in fall 2022, and a Western engineering student is already getting a chance to make his mark on the new facility.

Zach Turner, a fourth-year construction engineering student from Three Rivers, Michigan, has been interning with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company, for about a year and a half. He's spent the bulk of his internship working at the company's construction site on Western's campus, helping to oversee construction of the new student center. Turner's tasks have ranged from quality control and making sure equipment is installed properly to completing daily reports detailing work on the site.

Turner and his supervisor look at an ipad.

Turner, right, talks with his supervisor at the student center construction site.

"Whatever anyone needs that day, I basically go and help do that," he says. "It's pretty exciting to know you're building something that's going to help the campus. To be part of that and be able to come back in the future and see the building and remember what it was like going up—that will be cool."

The valuable on-the-job experience Turner has gained while completing his degree has cemented his future career plans.

"Working with Walbridge, I definitely have a better understanding of what I want to do. Starting out, I had zero construction experience," he says. "As I help people doing different tasks, I think I've decided I want to go the construction superintendent route because that's more in-the-field work—scheduling, planning, things of that nature. The mechanical, electrical and plumbing organizational tasks are more engineering related, which I like."


Turner's career path looks much different now than what he had envisioned several years ago transferring to Western from Kalamazoo Valley Community College, where he'd started working toward a degree in mechanical engineering.

"As a freshman, I thought I knew what I wanted to do," he says. "I did that for four years … before I found out that was not my thing. I need to be able to be outside talking to people."

As he contemplated his future, a pivotal event motivated him to follow his instincts: He lost a close friend to suicide.

A portrait of Zach Turner.

Turner stands near scaffolding inside the student center.

"That time was pretty hard in my life. So I was like, 'I need to do something that I'm going to be happy doing.' So I switched (majors) and it's probably been the best, hardest decision I've had to make."

A visit to a career fair at the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences around that same time offered networking opportunities that would lead to the impactful internship experiences that have led to a job offer for Turner—a full year before his expected graduation.

"Walbridge was the first table I walked up to. I talked to about 15 company representatives that day, but Walbridge ended up reaching out," he says.

The company has asked him to stay on as an employee once he gets his diploma in April. It will give him the opportunity to see the student center project through to completion. He looks forward to the Western community getting a chance to experience the finished product, especially the third floor dining area by the main pizza oven, which Turner says might be his favorite spot because it offers amazing views of campus.

"It looks down onto the West Michigan Avenue circle (in front of Seibert Administration Building) and you can see Sangren Mall and everything through the fins," he says. "I also think the game room will be a huge deal in the building because there are going to be so many different types of games, from virtual reality to pool and ping pong or board games; the space will bring a lot of people together. And then across the hall is the pub, which will definitely be a hit."

The University expects to announce the operator of the pub soon, which will serve up local and regional beer and wine as well as food. The first of its kind on a campus in Michigan, the pub will give Western the chance to showcase the work of students in the sustainable brewing program and also include a live entertainment space for student groups to perform.

Turner leans on a dolly.

"It's going to be a great collaboration space for a ton of different people," Turner says.

It's also a space where he's been able to put the skills he learned in the classroom into practice, on the campus where he found his passion.

"Being able to work where you've also worked so hard to accomplish a big life goal, I think, is huge," he says. "I'm most proud of the amount of work that I've had to put in to get here; it makes me appreciate all of this more."

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.

Related story

Brewpub on tap for Western's new student center | August 12, 2021