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Zachary Preston couldn’t have imagined the engineering opportunities that would become available to him during his college experience, he just wanted to learn. Now he is preparing for one of the most coveted jobs in his field.

“I never really intended to come this far, I just wanted to go as far as I could go,” he said. “I really wanted to just be versatile with my technical experience and training.”

Preston graduated from Wayne High School in 2016 and will graduate with a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from Marshall University in the fall of 2021.

Preston was recently award the Department of Defense (DOD) SMART Scholarship, which provides full tuition and room and board while recipients complete their studies, an internship at one of the DOD facilities and a guaranteed job after completing their degree.

SMART stands for Science, Mathematics And Research for Transformation, and the scholarship is part of the National Defense Education Program.

“What this means for me is next summer I will move to Georgia for 12 weeks and I’ll be working with fighter and cargo planes that the Robins Air Force Base maintain through industrial robotics, sand blasting, painting and body welding,” Preston said.

This scholarship will give Preston first-hand experience in a job he could spend years at, if he chooses. Whether he decides to stay with the DOD or not, Preston said engineering is not all technical skills.

“It’s more than just solving problems because you’re working with people and building all types of skills,” he said. “Communication skills and strategy and all of those things that are part of engineering and so many other jobs are needed for successful lawyers, doctors, engineers, maintenance people, tradespeople and anybody else, really.”

Before spending summer 2022 in Georgia, Preston will spend his time this summer in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, working with Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company. According to Preston, this is the company that engineers are currently aspiring to work for.

Preston said he is excited to work with Lockheed Martin partly because he received a scholarship from the company six months after starting at Marshall and partly because they work with exciting technology.

“I’ll be working on satellites and printing circuit boards,” he said. “They work on the coolest projects in America, it’s the forefront of science, technology and engineering.”

Before coming to Marshall, Preston also worked through the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program through BridgeValley Community & Technical College and the local Toyota Motor Manufacturing center.

Preston said he encouraged anyone from his hometown to look into the program, as it was much of the foundation for engineering and he learned a lot. He said the experience was like “getting your feet wet” and would be good for those wanting to learn technical and trade skills.

In his experience, Preston said, companies have looked at experience as very valuable, and even though he chose the university route, getting a degree is not mandatory for those interested in engineering.

“A lot of folks look down on technical and skilled trades for whatever reason, and I’ll never understand that, but it seems like because of those experiences, I’ve been able to apply my skill sets to apply to these Fortune 500 companies and they really love the experience.”

Preston even got to take his engineering skills in a different route when he interned with the NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia, where he said he was able to improve his research and development skills. This was different from his mechanical experience with Toyota and will be different from Lockheed Martin and the DOD, but it was a good opportunity to learn and build connections, he said.

Even with all these opportunities, Preston said there have been times in the past where others have put him down and discouraged him from continuing his education.

Despite this, Preston persevered, and encourages everyone to strive for their goals no matter who disagrees with their methods.

“Don’t let people, even people you really care about, hold you back from achieving your dreams and your goals and what you set out to do,” he said. “Because at the end of the day it’s more important to see that you are satisfied with the life you are living.

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