For senior Cullen Haesler, college is an adventure. In fact, he strives to make everything in life a fun, exciting and meaningful growth experience. With big expectations and even bigger goals, Cullen knew making a college selection would be the most important choice of his life. Now four years later, he’s sure he made the best decision ever, thanks to the life lessons he’s learned and people he now calls family at Olivet College.
Cullen comes from Tecumseh, a small, rural town in southeast Michigan. In high school, Cullen focused on keeping his grades up and played lacrosse, a passion that drove his determination to attend college. With a great GPA and proven success on the field, Cullen had a wide variety of colleges willing to welcome him to campus. In the end, OC rose above, thanks to the strong community basis on campus. Plus, Cullen’s brother, Chuck, just so happened to be a Comet as well.
“Olivet felt like home to me,” Cullen explained. “From the beginning, the admissions staff was just awesome, and every professor or coach I met made me feel more welcome. I haven’t been disappointed. Even though my actual brother has graduated, I still have a ton of family on campus.”
Cullen is studying environmental science with a minor in business administration. While he isn’t sure which direction his career will take him, it isn’t for lack of options. Rather, Cullen’s unique course of study has opened countless career paths for him and he’s even taken some extraordinary measures to set himself apart. Most recently, Cullen earned his pilot’s license while on his latest great adventure in Alaska.
Time for Takeoff
“Last winter, I turned to Diane Kirkham, OC’s internship coordinator, to help me start narrowing down my career path,” Cullen said. “My goal was to gain a new experience unlike anything I’ve ever gotten to do before, and Mrs. Kirkham showed me a website full of seasonal jobs all around the country. I sent out a bunch of applications and K2 Aviation in Talkeetna, Alaska got back to me. After a Skype interview, they offered me a job as a ramp agent the next day.”
Making time between lacrosse practice, classes and on-campus jobs, Cullen had been taking flight training lessons for more than a year. For him, earning a pilot’s license was at the top of his bucket list – a major accomplishment that not only would be a great personal achievement, but might serve him in his future career as well. A summer job traveling the continent and learning more about planes and flying? Cullen’s dream come true.
Cullen was careful to consider the offer before accepting the position in Alaska. It was a combination of John Wilterding, Ph.D., professor of biology and chemistry, and Cullen’s father who pushed him to take the leap. Cullen had often shared his ambitions with Dr. Wilterding who would reciprocate with his own tales of traveling the country as a young Midwesterner. “Dr. Wilterding told me, Cullen, this is something you need to do,” he recalled. “His perspective on it all played a great role in making my decision. He’s built a lot of trust with me and helped me understand that this is a life changing experience. My dad took the direct route, he said I would be an idiot if I didn’t take the job. They couldn’t have been more right; it was perfect and it was awesome.”
Enjoy the Ride
Just two days after Chuck’s OC graduation, Cullen grabbed his bags and landed in Alaska after a 10-hour journey. In his role as a ramp agent, he helped clean, load and fuel 50s and 60s model bush planes used for flightseeing tours of Denali National Park, honing in on glaciers. In addition, Cullen moved into a 12-by-8 foot dry cabin within walking distance from the airport. After spending three months without running water, a kitchen or a bathroom, Cullen joked that his apartment felt more like a lavish mansion when he moved back to campus this fall – just four days after her arrived home to Michigan.
While being around and learning more about airplanes would have been enough to make Cullen’s summer vacation fabulous, completing his flight training and check flight in Alaska made it ultimately epic. The generous locals helped Cullen track down a plane to rent and a flight instructor to make his dream a reality. “It’s a huge thing to say I completed my flight training in Alaska,” Cullen said nostalgically. “Don’t get me wrong, Michigan is beautiful and I love flying anywhere, but Alaska is just a whole new level.”
Cullen experienced the generosity of Alaskans once again when a coworker tossed him the keys to his truck and told him to explore the state. In only three days, Cullen covered nearly 1,000 miles of south central Alaska, visiting mountains, waterfalls and glaciers in and around Denali National Park.
“My whole summer feels like a dream looking back on it, and if it weren’t for pictures, I’m not sure if I would believe it was real,” Cullen admitted. “I am so thankful to have those memories and connections that have expanded all the way around the country. I never thought I would have that.”
Cullen credits his professors for helping him develop the confidence to try new things and giving him the push to pursue incredible opportunities, which is also why he’s confident in his future, even not knowing what his next step after graduation will be. Currently, Cullen is exploring options within the military and learning more about wildlands firefighting, while still calculating if he’ll be able to squeeze in another trip back to Talkeetna in the future.
“I’ve experienced so much personal growth from this opportunity,” Cullen exclaimed. “Especially understanding that everything is scary at first, but you’re never going to grow if you don’t step out of your comfort zone. Also, every person you meet and every decision you make will influence you. Finding success is about taking those pieces and putting them together to create the person you want to be.”