Engineering Grads

Oakton grads Michael Ciupinski, Antonio Mercado, Chris Iliopoulos and Alan Connor
Charting a path from Oakton to a University of Illinois engineering degree
What’s it like landing on a campus of 35,000 undergraduate students and joining one of the country’s best engineering schools in your junior year? Oakton grads Michael Ciupinski, Alan Connor, Chris Iliopoulos and Antonio Mercado are finding out together through Oakton’s University of Illinois Engineering Pathways program.

A strong start at Oakton
The group arrived in Urbana in the fall of 2023 and moved into an off-campus house while launching the second half of their bachelor’s degrees through the Engineering Pathways program. The program provides students the opportunity for guaranteed admission to U of I and a streamlined transfer process. Students start by taking two years of engineering and general education courses at Oakton in small, rigorous classes. Then, they move into their junior and senior years—and major coursework—at The Grainger School of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

For many students, the choice to start at Oakton is about affordability—all the students agreed that spending two years in community college saved them thousands of dollars and helped make the University of Illinois tuition more feasible. But this group found that the strong start Oakton provided was worth a lot more than the money they saved.

“I think a big thing is that making the transition from high school work to college-level work is pretty major,” says Antonio. “So, to be in a smaller class where you can ask the professor direct questions whenever you want—that’s super nice.”

Smaller classes don’t mean easier classes—in fact, they provide the chance to find your footing. “Oakton prepared me very well,” says Michael. “I came in my first year and I was a procrastinator and I didn't really put school as number one, but by the second semester it started getting harder. And that's when I got into studying and getting help when I needed it.”

The transfer student community
Grainger Engineering offers pathway programs with all Illinois community colleges, so students who transfer into the program their junior year get to know one another quickly.

“I've met a lot of people from different community colleges through the Engineering Pathways program and had a lot of people in multiple classes, which is surprising at such a big school,” says Alan.

Plus, living with fellow Oakton grads has made the transition to their first time living away from home much easier. “When you live with other people that you've never lived with before you start to pick up some of their habits,” says Antonio. “Michael, Alan and Chris are all always good about studying and it makes me study more. And I cook 24/7 and I feel like it makes them cook more. So we kind of rub off on each other and it helps us develop other skills outside of school.”

What’s next at Grainger Engineering
Now that the group is settling in, they can focus on their major-specific courses and specializations in engineering.

“I think that the thing I look forward to most is delving into civil engineering topics very specifically—those 300 and 400 level transportation and structural design classes,” says Chris. “Everything has been in preparation for the moment where I can truly become a future civil engineer by taking these classes that are very specific to what I want to do.”

And, the students are putting their skills to work in nationally-recognized extra curricular activities. “There are a lot of engineering-related clubs. I joined a Robotics Club where we're working on making an omnidirectional wheelchair,” says Alan. “I’m excited to get project experience and apply everything that I've learned in the classroom to build something new.”