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Engineering graduate went from leading bands to guiding rockets

May 16, 2016 - By Kim Delker

To say Christopher DeGraw took a slightly different path to becoming an engineer would be an understatement.

The Connecticut native earned a bachelor's in music education and a master's in musicology (from Ithaca College and the University of Limerick in Ireland, respectively), then was an elementary and middle school band teacher in Connecticut and Las Vegas, Nevada, for nearly a decade before deciding to pursue an engineering degree at age 33.

This month, he will receive a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from The University of New Mexico.

He said he always had twin interests in music and engineering, dreaming of working for NASA, but just happened to choose music first. A variety of factors caused him to change course and move to New Mexico to attend UNM.

Because it was such a big move — both literally, from Nevada, and figuratively, in terms of changing careers — DeGraw moved alone to Albuquerque for a year to make sure his plan was academically and financially feasible. After a year, wife Mary Louise moved here, leaving her job as an orchestra teacher to take a similar route of pursuing a chemical engineering degree at UNM.

Though he said he was significantly older than many of his classmates, DeGraw said he feels that the added experience he brought to his studies was beneficial. And perhaps his extra experience made the engineering coursework not as challenging.
"The music school curriculum was just as hard as engineering," he said. "In fact, it might even be harder. I almost got kicked out of music school because I wasn’t considered good enough."

Even though DeGraw has been busy with engineering coursework the last few years, he still enjoys music as a hobby, including singing and playing a variety of instruments.

While a student, DeGraw has also been working in rocketry at Sandia National Laboratories while also working as a tutor and teaching assistant at UNM. In the fall, he will head to Georgia Tech to earn a master's degree in aerospace, planning to return to his position at Sandia afterward. Though he took an unconventional path to becoming an engineer, DeGraw says that his story might serve as an inspiration to others who are looking to launch a career change. "You’re never too old. It's never too late," he said.