Justin Fleming knows how to make things work.
The Sycamore, Ohio native, who will graduate May 9 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering technology, served as an electrician for six years in the U.S. Air Force prior to transferring to The University of Toledo for his final two years of college. That experience brought a unique, valuable perspective to his studies.
“In this field, you work in the middle – you have to speak both the language of engineers, and the language of craftsmen like electricians,” Fleming said. “I hardly touched a plane during my time in the Air Force, but I did learn how to build and work with many different types of systems.”
While in high school, Fleming started in a vocational program for computer science, but gradually found his niche as an electrician thanks to influences in his family and basic training tests for the military, which reinforced where his strengths lied.
After four deployments — including to Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates — all to build and maintain power lines, airfield lights, generators and other heavy-duty equipment, the transition from the military to his engineering coursework was relatively seamless. But he did find some surprises along the way.
“By the time I got to UToledo, I had been doing many of the things in my early courses for a long time,” Fleming said. “But the more I got into my degree, I started looking back and realizing why some projects didn’t work. We misunderstood how electricity runs through different systems and components.”
Understanding how to dismantle a problem and examine various possible solutions served Fleming well during his final semester when the shift to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic posed its own challenges.
“The first person I called when we learned classes would not happen in person was Niki Kamm,” Fleming said. “We brainstormed on how to do senior design projects and labs when we couldn’t be there in person. She’s the type of instructor that refuses to let anyone fail.”
That combination of receiving hands-on, practical training from approachable instructors has prepared Fleming well for his career.
“Justin is the engineer any employer would be grateful to have,” said Kamm, associate lecturer in the Electrical Engineering Technology program. “He has been the kind of engineering student that betters the classroom experience for all those in it — inventive, intelligent and inspiring.”
As part of the unique, mandatory co-op program at the College of Engineering, Fleming has worked in three different rotations servicing electrical lines for American Electric Power: two in Fostoria, Ohio and one in South Bend, Ind.
Ultimately, he points to 39 days in Afghanistan that have set the tone for his career and livelihood. It was January 2016, and he was sent to a small U.S. Army base that had gone months without running water or electricity. In that time, Fleming’s team succeeded in their assignment to provide the basics: washing and drying equipment, showers, electricity for communications, a full-blown kitchen and more.
“I’ve never seen 40 guys look so happy to wash clothes,” Fleming said. “That’s the moment I saw that my turning wrenches and installing light bulbs makes an impact on other people.”