Mastering the Mission: NROTC at Penn Engineering

Demanding academics, the rigors of the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) program, and a social life. Students who elect NROTC at a prestigious university like Penn usually accept the conventional wisdom that says a person can be successful in two of the three angles of this triangle of challenges. Keelen Collins, a senior in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM), seems to have mastered all three, at a sacrifice of course. Collins doesn't get a lot of sleep.

Support Network

Collins, the youngest of four children, grew up in Pittsburgh, and watched as his next-oldest sibling succeeded at Penn while also engaged in NROTC. In return for his full scholarship to Penn, Collins has committed to serving as a Naval Officer for the next five years. He believes NROTC has "been a challenging path, but it offers great rewards and has also given me an opportunity to serve my country." In addition to his mechanical engineering workload, Collins is required to take two courses each semester at the NROTC Unit, covering such subjects as navigation and ethics, with the additional ongoing responsibility of billets (the semester jobs required to run the Unit). Nonetheless, he thrives on the high expectations of both the physical rigors and the academic demands.

Collins also appreciates the networking opportunities created by his participation in NROTC. His Unit includes students from Penn, Drexel, and Temple universities, and Collins notes "the chance to make friends at other schools" as one of the strengths of the Philadelphia Unit and one of the satisfying features of his service.

When he arrived at Penn, Collins' support network widened to include Lt. James Giles. Collins credits Giles as being a crucial influence as he adjusted to the demands of a challenging academic program coupled with the requirements of NROTC.

Collins' foundational network also included his father, a mechanical and electrical engineer, and founder of his own company, American Robot Corp. Going to work with his father as he grew up sparked Collins' interests and developed his initial real-world engineering skills.

The Academic Angle

One of the aspects of MEAM that captivates Collins is the integration of the knowledge and skills necessary to complete projects successfully. As a student in MEAM's Design of Mechatronic Systems course, Collins relished the opportunity to integrate mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering to compete in the Robockey tournament, the culminating project in the course. Led by Jonathan Fiene, senior lecturer in MEAM, the event requires each team of three or four students to build an autonomous robot that they enter in a hockey tournament. Collins admitted he and his teammates got little sleep during the final stages of building their robot, devoting 60-80 hours a week during the final weeks, but says it was "really fun, a very valuable class, and tons of people came to cheer us on." Many of the class projects are both challenging and fun, but also prepare students to accomplish the academic aspect of the triangle.

Finding Time for Fun

Through his fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, Collins maintains a social life and takes the time to stay connected to his love of music. "I recently picked up banjo and play some guitar. I'll occasionally host bluegrass jams with some friends that also play bluegrass-style instruments," he says. Collins is the National Anthem Ensemble director for the NROTC Unit. He is also on the Penn Clay Team, which competes in various intercol-legiate skeet, trap and sporting clay competitions, and says "those outings are a lot of fun and a nice change of scenery."

From Classroom to Ship

What does the future hold for a fun-loving, highly skilled Navy ensign? His current Unit's senior class advisor, Lt. James Peluso, says that Collins is "one of only a few graduates in the country who is joining the Engineering Duty Officer community." Early in the spring, before Collins' anticipated commission in the Navy and graduation from Penn, he will engage in the service selection system. Ranked an mpressive 21st of more than 250 new ensigns seeking spots in the open billets "draft," Collins is hoping for an assignment to a cruiser/destroyer, a ship he describes as small, because there are only thirty officers, so "you're in the spotlight all the time." Collins relishes that opportunity to shine and credits his experiences in Penn NROTC with raising his profile and providing the platform for him to distinguish himself.

Both Lt. Peluso and Bruce Kothmann, senior lecturer in MEAM and Collins' senior project advisor, cite Collins' relentless "can-do" attitude. Collins acknowledges how much NROTC has helped him "maintain a high capacity for workload and stress" and has fostered skills he will need to successfully engineer real-world solutions to whatever challenges he will face.

Editor's Note: Keelen Collins graduated from Penn in May 2014, and is currently serving aboard the USS Mobile Bay, a cruiser, in San Diego, CA.

View the full the article in Penn Engineering magazine: "Mastering the Mission: NROTC at Penn Engineering," by Stephanie Sayago Bell.

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