KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Dr. James Rhodes has had an epic journey at Western Michigan University. Over more than 40 years, the faculty specialist in computer science has earned six degrees from the University all while riding on the leading edge of the computer wave. In fact, most students he sat next to at his two latest commencement ceremonies on April 29, where he earned a master's degree in data science and a Ph.D. in computer science, have likely only seen the early technology Rhodes worked on in history books.
"I remember even before Windows and laptops and personal computers. When I first started, we actually used punch cards way back then; it was called data processing at that time," he laughs. "We had punch cards we had to write our programs on and use machine language, just putting a bunch of ones and zeros in the computer."
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Rhodes always pictured himself as a doctor or a lawyer. But the results of his ACT test—on which he scored in the top 10% nationally in math—gave him a different idea.
"On the back of the results form, it had a pie chart of all the different types of fields and occupations, and it put me in computer science because of my math score. I didn't understand at the time what computers had to do with math," he remembers. But his mother, who worked at telecommunications company Michigan Bell, encouraged him to take the suggestion to heart. "She had the inside scoop on the future of technology, where it was headed. And she said, 'Yeah, I think that's a good idea. You should get into computers.’"
Rhodes started looking at colleges that had computer science programs, and Western had just started its program a few years earlier in the late 1970s.
"It was just close enough to home (that I could visit on the weekends) but still far enough away," he says. Once he checked out campus, he was hooked. "(Western) just always felt like home, even from the very beginning. That's why I keep coming back!"
Rhodes built a solid foundation in computer science while pursuing his bachelor's degree—so much so that he took a detour to kickstart his information technology (IT) career early working in the government defense systems group at Texas Instruments. The position required top secret clearance and involved technology like GPS tracking systems well before they made it to the public.
He finished his bachelor's degree in 1992 and continued working in management information systems at Bissell Vacuum Company and Vickers—now operated by Eaton—until a new opportunity presented itself: Y2K. At the time, many computer programs represented years with only the final two digits, sparking fears the year 2000 would become confused with 1900 and would bring down infrastructure worldwide and trigger a computer-induced apocalypse.
"I actually created a consulting company where I helped companies become Y2K compliant," he says. "From a programming standpoint, it was a very easy fix. But of course, it was critical, so it had to be done."
The business was lucrative—Rhodes had no employees or overhead—but he found himself paying large sums to accountants to manage his taxes. He headed back to Western to pursue a master's in accountancy so he could get a better understanding of how to run his business and eventually keep his own books.
"I (initially) had no idea what (accounting) was. I thought it was just a bunch of number crunching, but accounting is much more than that. I fell in love with it," he says. "(People) thought I was crazy for saying ‘I love this stuff!’"
His love of accounting sustained him through the journey of obtaining his second degree in 2004. Rhodes tapped into his business and technical credentials to work for Rapistan—now Siemens—in Grand Rapids for a few years, but then he felt called to move to Arizona.
"There has to be someone upstairs that's kind of guiding me, because a lot of times I do things and I don't realize until after I'm done why I did it," he says. "Once I got to Phoenix, I realized that two airlines had merged that were headquartered there: US Airways and America West. So an opportunity opened up in the airline industry for me, and I started working at US Airways."
Rhodes worked in the operations department, where he developed reports to inform senior management how airline operations were running and help minimize delays and cancellations.
"The computer science (degree) definitely prepared me for my jobs and the accounting as well. Because in the corporate world, finance and IT don't talk the same language. So I was able to kind of bridge the gap and be a liaison between the two," Rhodes says.
He eventually helped the two airlines merge their databases into one, creating a single server to operate smoothly through the transition into one airline.
"It was challenging but very rewarding work," he says. "Passengers don't understand what it takes to keep an airline going. If everyone's not doing their part, it's very easy for an airline to come to a screeching halt. You've got to keep those planes moving, and you've got to keep passengers happy."
After working through another merger, Rhodes decided it was time to go back to school. He started back at Western on track to get a master's in computer science, which he earned in 2018, and stayed to complete another master's in cybersecurity while he was at it in 2021.
"That's the thing about this field: I have to keep learning, whether it's degree-oriented or just my own independent research. I have to stay up on the latest technology or I'm going to be pushed away along the currents," he says.
He's used his vast industry and educational experience to impart knowledge on the next generation as a faculty specialist in Western's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences while at the same time pursuing two more degrees: a master's in data science and doctoral degree in computer science. In between taking his own course load and doling out lessons and exams to his students, Rhodes managed to successfully complete and defend a dissertation on developing an efficient priority queue.
"It's a data structure that allows you to determine what type of either job or node or piece of information that is going to be processed next," he says.
Prioritizing is something that Rhodes knows inside and out after all of his decades managing jobs and his education, especially pulling double duty on degrees over the last couple of years.
"I actually like this type of stuff," he says. "When you need to juggle all these balls … you've got to keep everything straight in your mind. It's a challenge."
But now that he's finished?
"I'm definitely going to sleep," he laughs.
Rhodes turns 60 this year, so completing his sixth degree at Western seems a fitting milestone and a good place to close the book on his student journey at Western. But the legacy of Rhodes’ scholarship at the University will continue; his son just finished his first year on campus.
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