At 72, welding graduate is just getting started
As aerospace and defense contracts started dwindling at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Volkmann, owner of VP Manufacturing in Canyon Country, made the difficult decision to close in August 2020 after 33 years in the aerospace manufacturing business.
“I hated having to close it,” said Volkmann, who felt responsible for his 15 employees. “But on the other hand, if that hadn’t happened, I probably would have stayed there until I passed away at my desk.”
For the first time in a long time, the 72-year-old had the chance to do what he had watched — and helped — his three daughters accomplish: get a college education.
“I always felt that that’s what was missing,” said Volkmann, who graduated from College of the Canyons this week with an associate degree in welding technology.
Before being drafted by the U.S. Army in 1969, the Saugus resident was taking classes at El Camino College. Upon his military discharge, he took classes intermittingly at El Camino and Pierce College while working as a CNC machinist and programmer.
Eventually, he stopped taking classes and focused on his job and family.
“When I was raising my family, I couldn’t afford to [go to college] because I was working long hours and raising my daughters and I always said I couldn’t afford it,” said Volkmann. “Then it dawned on me that if I could pay for all their educations, I certainly should be able to pay for mine.”
With the help and encouragement of his three daughters and three grandsons, Volkmann enrolled at COC in fall 2019.
To test the waters, he enrolled in an English 101 course because it was the subject he struggled with the most in high school.
“I said, ‘If I’m going to be successful in college what will tell me whether I can do this or not is if I can take an English class at a college level and get a passing grade in it,’” said Volkmann.
On the first day of class, Volkmann remembers feeling intimidated when he stepped inside the Canyon Country campus classroom.
“I was the oldest person in the class, including the professor,” said Volkmann. “The kids in there were 17 or 18, the ages of my grandsons. That first day was scary, but after that I was fine.”
Stepping outside his comfort zone paid off: He got an A in the class.
“It kind of set the mood for everything else that came after that because I did very well in the classes that I had to write in,” said Volkmann. “Everything I learned there I still use today in how I write.”
Volkmann’s lifelong hobby of modifying cars and motorcycles influenced his decision to pursue a degree in welding technology, which he encountered throughout his aerospace manufacturing career.
It gave him the chance to step inside a shop environment, which Volkmann says he greatly misses.
“I worked in that industry for 55 years,” said Volkmann. “It’s just a part of me.”
Volkmann immediately noticed the state-of-the-art equipment he saw in the college’s welding technology and automotive technology labs.
“I can look at the machines in the welding program and know how much that costs,” said Volkmann. “It costs a lot of money and I know that somebody has got to write a proposal and get funding for that. I am very impressed with that.”
As an adult reentry student, Volkmann says COC has also been a very accommodating school.
“Everybody that I have run into has had the intention for me to succeed,” said Volkmann.
Liz Shaker, Volkmann’s COC counselor, described him as a resilient gentleman with a wealth of knowledge and experience.
“He’s been through some tough times due to the pandemic but made the best of his situation and now is at a position where he has many options moving forward,” said Shaker.
His time at COC has not been without its challenges.
When the college transitioned to remote learning in spring 2020, Volkmann missed being inside a classroom environment.
“I was not happy about it, but I had to keep in mind that the goal was to get the degree and just do whatever it takes to do it,” said Volkmann.
With the help of his three grandsons, he learned how to use Zoom to continue attending his classes.
Volkmann says his family has been his biggest supporters and they are ecstatic to attend his COC graduation.
“My mother is still alive, and she said, ‘I wish it would have happened sooner but I’m happy,’” said Volkmann.
Now with an associate’s degree to his name, Volkmann is looking to the future with excitement.
“My first goal was to get an associate degree,” said Volkmann. “I didn’t know that I would want to continue.”
He hopes to transfer to UCLA or CSUN to earn a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering to teach manufacturing or welding at the college level.
“Some people say you have to keep your mind active, to stay at home and do crossword puzzles and Sudoku, but if you really want to keep your mind active and engaged, go get in a classroom with these young bright people that are out there,” said Volkmann. “They don’t seem to mind that I am there. It has been a great experience.”