Driven to graduate: 3 students stay at motel, work full-time in automotive industry

By ANDREW WALTER
@AndyWalterETC

A baby’s cries for attention. The non-stop thud of feet trudging down the halls. The overpowering stench of cigarette smoke that permeates every room except the lobby, where the aroma of discount coffee brewing signals the start of another day.

These are the sounds and smells that three Eastfield automotive students have been waking up to at a local Motel 6 for the past two years. They’re up and dressed by 6:45 a.m. so they have time to grab breakfast and make it to speech class at 7:30 a.m.

Whenever they walk out of the motel, they sneak over to their car to avoid any unsavory encounters near Jim Miller Road. They’ve been flagged down too many times both in and out of the car by homeless people in the area.

“We go all over town, just drive around sometimes,” said Benjamin Strittmatter, one of the automotive students who has loved the hum of a car’s engine since tinkering on them with his dad as a child. “There’s a lot of crazy stuff that happens around here. We gotta look at it all.”

Strittmatter, along with his friends, Anthony Garcia and Trevian Young, recently graduated from Eastfield’s Honda Professional Automotive Career Training program. To attend the program, they’ve carpooled from Saginaw to Dallas once a week to catch their classes, which they spent almost 12 hours per day in, and then stayed at a local motel.

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The three students became friends in their high school automotive program at the Hollenstein Career and Technology Center. After several Fort Worth-based Honda dealership representatives and Eastfield automotive instructor Elias Alba visited the Hollenstein Center and then let the students tour Eastfield’s campus, the three friends thought about what it would take to enroll at Eastfield.

“We liked the program,” Strittmatter said. “I don’t think we definitely decided at that point to go.”

The decision wasn’t an easy one. Going to Eastfield would require a commitment. They would have to drive more than 100 miles round-trip from Saginaw to Mesquite each day. Doing that twice a week would be a strain on both their wallets and their time.

After thinking it over, they came up with a unique solution. They would wake up around 4 a.m. on Mondays, pick each other up, carpool to Eastfield, go to class from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and then split the $65 rental fee and stay the night at the nearby Motel 6.

“I don’t regret the miles I’ve put on the truck,” Strittmatter said. “I have an unfaltering trust for my friends. The nights we spent in the hotel room really set [Dallas] apart and gave it that college feel.”

Back when they were in high school, Strittmatter, Garcia and Young entered an automobile maintenance competition in Waco and advanced to the second round in Corpus Christi. While they were there, the three stayed together in a hotel for the first time.

“It’s just ironic how we hung out at a hotel for a school event to make it something we did for two years at another hotel,” Garcia said. “It just carried on.”

On Tuesday, they would go back to class at the same time and drive back to Saginaw to work full-time at local auto dealerships for the rest of the week. They’ve repeated this process for the last two years and say they’ve probably saved a fair amount of money by adopting this hotel strategy.

Garcia said that juggling these near 12-hour work days along with working full time is difficult, and it feels like their lives are made up of “back-to-back-to-back work.”

Young said that he loves the schedule. It helps him focus on all of the other responsibilities in his life.

“I love that it is 12 hours because I don’t feel like I have to rush,” he said. “I don’t have to stress about getting my work done.”Automotive instructor William Milam has taught Garcia, Strittmatter and Young throughout their two years at Eastfield. He said they are some of the smartest students of the Honda PACT program’s 10th graduating class.

They don’t just sit in lectures or work on cars, Milam said. They do hands-on module work, computer work, diagnostics and more.

“They do bumper-to-bumper work, basically over two years,” he said.

Garcia said that Milam has been one of his favorite instructors. He loves Milam’s direct teaching style.

“He is a straightforward instructor,” Garcia said. “He never plays. Well, he does play a lot, but it’s always a life lesson when he tries to teach you.”

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The trio said they felt a sense of relief after graduating. They want to focus more on their dealership jobs for a while now that they have more free time.

“We can finally relax on Sundays,” Strittmatter said with a laugh.

The Honda PACT program allows graduates to receive an associate of science degree, several Honda certifications and 95 percent of the training they need to become Honda master technicians.

“We get the associate [degree] and we’re almost Honda master technicians,” Strittmatter said. “That’s something you can really carry with you for life.”

While the trio said they plan on staying friends for life, they each want to do something different following their time at Eastfield.

Strittmatter said he might take a few more classes at Eastfield for fun but doesn’t plan on getting any more degrees. He still thinks that Eastfield has the best and closest automotive program available in the metroplex. He wants to open his own automotive shop or service center one day.

“[I want] not just a garage but something more innovative,” he said.

Garcia wants to focus more on the business side of the automotive industry. He wants to understand the workings of an engine inside and out. He eventually wants a mechanical engineering degree and said he will likely transfer to the University of Texas at Arlington at some point.

“I want to go back to school while I’m young,” he said. “I don’t want to relearn everything.”

Young plans to use his skills as a mechanic while traveling, perhaps with the military, as he comes from a military family.

He and his friends are thankful for Eastfield’s automotive program, even with the more than 50-mile drive from Saginaw to Mesquite

“It’s a good program, and it helps me be not just a better mechanic but a more confident one,” Young said.

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