Editor's Note: This ongoing thrive series looks at how students on college campuses are innovating, overcoming challenges and living healthy lives.
ONTARIO — Erik Miller is a seemingly average, 22-year-old college student from Galion. Except, he is anything but average.
Miller was not only the valedictorian of his high school class, he also graduated with his associates degree in Engineering Technology from North Central State College (NCSC) before even receiving his high school diploma.
While taking those engineering courses, offered by NCSC through a program called College-Now, Miller developed a passion for electrical and mechanical design.
But it hasn’t been an easy road for Miller to achieve his lofty goals. From a young age, Miller had the odds stacked against him. Like many families in North Central Ohio, he has struggled to pay the bills.
According to Data USA, the median annual income of a household in Galion is $33,566. This is much less than the average annual income of households across the entire country, which is $61,937. As a whole, Ohio has over 1 million people living in poverty.
Growing up, Miller remembers mowing yards for lunch money and going with his father to seek employment at the Crawford County employment office.
“We used to do that for a couple hours every day in the summer. I remember I used to sit [there] drawing pictures of tanks on scrap paper,” Erik said. “It's not because my dad didn’t want to, it's that he couldn’t find anything.”
Jonah Edelman, Ph.D., highlights the impact of financial hardship on a student’s education. For example, he states that low-income students have a higher chance of dropping out of high school and a lower chance of completing college.
It can seem like an endless cycle of poverty affecting education possibilities, and education status affecting one’s ability to lift themselves out of poverty.
This is one of the main reasons why Miller said he decided to go college; for “the potential increase in pay [which] would help me become financially independent.” Therefore, breaking the cycle.
Edelman also quotes Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., saying, “even for those who receive full Pell Grants and some institutional aid, that rarely provides enough to cover their needs.”
This was another obstacle Miller faced when striving for a successful engineering career. He received a scholarship from QuestBridge in Connecticut which covered 95% of the tuition, but the remaining costs were still too high. He decided to stay close to home, where he could keep his debt minimal and network within his home community.
Ohio also struggles with keeping its college graduates in the state. According to the New York Times, “generally, Rust Belt and Midwest states like Ohio... have seen the largest net losses in younger, college-educated people.”
With many of those students fleeing the state after graduation, it places a strain on Ohio to continue granting large amounts of financial aid to students like Miller.
Miller mentions that another reason he wanted to go to college was to pay back those who have helped him in the past. He is not only paying back, he is paying forward by staying in Ohio and investing in other students’ higher education.
Miller recently graduated from Miami University. He received his Bachelor’s in Electrical-Mechanical Engineering with honors in 2018.
This led him to an employment opportunity with HPM, which builds large-scale die cast machines all over the world. Miller designs and builds electrical systems for HPM from scratch.
He has also been able to travel to nine different states on business related trips, including a trip to Toro. In his spare time he has picked up a new hobby of flying and even has his own student pilot license. Not only is he experiencing new and exciting adventures, but Miller is also building up his 401(k) and wisely investing in his future.
Miller is now pursuing a second concentration of Electrical-Computer Engineering. Paying for his classes as he goes and working hard to obtain scholarships has left Miller debt free.
In the future, Miller plans to pursue a master’s degree at Case Western Reserve University or Ohio University. He also has a dream of working for SpaceX one day, which was founded by Elon Musk in 2002 to revolutionize space technology.
He advises students to network within their high school and college communities, making themselves known to those who can help them. “It’s one thing doing scholarships, it’s another thing getting recommendations.”
Miller is an inspiration for all students to follow their dreams regardless of the obstacles they face. To students who are burdened with financial difficulty, Miller reminds them that “if you are a very hard working individual, people will go out of their way to help you… you’re gonna get far."