Published: May 9, 2024

Mark WilbourneGraduating senior Mark Wilbourne is being honored with a 2024 Perseverance Award by the College of Engineering and Applied Science. The distinction honors undergraduate students who persevere despite adversity – above and beyond the inherent perseverance needed in any engineering major.

What is your favorite memory from your time at CU Boulder?

It is really hard to pinpoint a moment as my favorite or think of an experience that encapsulates what I experienced during my time at CU Boulder. There have been great moments like accepting a job, interactions with people on campus, football games, and moments in the classroom, but they all are missing something from the whole experience here.

When I think about my favorite memory here I think of the emotions I feel leaving campus. It’s been an incredible, long but fast couple of years here with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The loneliest I’ve ever been and the closest I’ve been to people, the worst failures and the best successes, the most stressful and the most empty of days.

It’s probably why it is so difficult to think of a single moment, nothing covers the dichotomy of emotions and the growth I have had in such a short amount of time. I don’t even recognize who I was at the start of college, or even last year but that is what college is all about.

I could not have asked for a better place to do it though, every time I look at the flatirons I am just amazed at the place I have been able to live for these past years. It’s an incredible place with an amazing department and even better people, and I know I am going to have so much pride in CU Boulder going forward.

What accomplishment are you most proud of, either academically or personally?

The proudest accomplishment I had for my time here honestly has been all the adversity I have gone through. It’s easy to look at me and think, "Oh, perseverance award, fitting for someone who is paralyzed." But honestly, that was one of the easier things that I was going through here. I went through incredible challenges, a lot of the time multiple drastic ones simultaneously, and I was always able to keep myself going.

I’ve learned a lot about myself through these experiences, mainly the fact that when the fire was turned up I kept going and was able to have some of my greatest successes in the worst of times. There were times when I did not know if graduation day would ever come for me, which makes it that much more special being on the other side.

Tell us about a moment when you felt like you hit your stride or felt like you were “officially” an engineer.

The moment I felt I really knew what I was doing ironically was after I failed my first Calc 2 exam in my second semester. It was the first exam I really failed miserably and honestly I did not know if I could keep doing engineering afterwards. I went to my Professor, Anne Dougherty, and had an honest conversation of do I need to drop this class, can I keep going, do I need to just quit, basically.

When the fire was turned up I kept going."

She told me it’s possible to pass but honestly it’s going to be pretty hard. She gave me advice on how to go forward, was very supportive, and told me to be diligent with office hours and really pay close attention to the content in the homework. I took her advice and made it a point to be diligent in getting help, probably going to office hours every single day, and I ended up with a B in the class.

I think it really takes a moment like this when you fail lower than you think you can to really figure out what you are doing and to truly learn what you are capable of. After this experience, I knew how to handle coursework and how to study for engineering and no class was too difficult to handle. Without it, I would not have learned important lessons about studying and how to be a good college student and ultimately, would not have been as successful.

What was the biggest challenge for you during your engineering education? What did you learn from it?

The biggest challenge I faced was simply finding my place and knowing where and what I wanted to be. It’s one of the biggest opportunities you have in college but can also be one of the hardest. I bounced around to a couple of organizations that I was told are good for resume building and are good things to be a part of, but I realized once I got involved in them that I really didn’t enjoy it I was just doing it for the reputation.

Eventually, I got a sense of what was right for me by being involved in Student Ambassadors. We’re known as the tour guides around campus but really we do a lot of work for admissions and interact with prospective students in many ways. It’s ironic I found community here as this is definitely not an engineering club but it taught me how much I like interacting with people and how I want to continue doing that in my future career.

I am going into a management position with Lockheed Martin by way of one of their leadership development programs, which is an opportunity I never thought would come my way. I found this opportunity because I was involved in the things I wanted to be involved in and said no to things that were not right for me.

This can be harder than people anticipate as a lot of times there is pressure to be involved in certain things or do certain jobs and pushing back against that can be scary with unknown outcomes. I always tell people though to really just do the things that seem right to them and once you find your place, throw yourself into it. Let your passions drive what you do and I promise the success you are looking for will find you.

What is your biggest piece of advice for incoming engineering students?

When I get this question asked, "What would you do differently," or, "What would you tell your first-year self," I always say the same thing: I would not change anything. Yes, there were horrible experiences, plenty of pitfalls, and college could have been a lot better for me, but ultimately those negative experiences brought me to the place I am supposed to be. It is one of the unfortunate facts about life that in order to learn you must fail first. You can get all the advice you want but in order to truly learn what everyone is telling you you have to experience and learn it in your own way.

So I tell people to be patient. Success, comfort, friends, all of it does not come fast or easy. Be patient with yourself and your own expectations, you’re probably not going to meet them right away and that is okay we all go through it. When you do fail, use it as an opportunity to learn.

Take time to seriously reflect and feel what you need to feel. If you don’t take this opportunity, you won’t learn, and learning is the greatest thing that comes from failure. Those lessons will eventually bring you to the outcome you want no matter how scary it seems while going through it. It took me a long time to get to where I wanted to be and to be happy but I promise if you keep going you’ll eventually get to where you need to be.