Five years ago, Volkan Ceylan was new to California and didn't speak a word of English. But science and math came easily to him.
Today, Ceylan speaks English fluently and is a sophomore at UC Merced majoring in mechanical engineering . He's also a leader of one of the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) teams.
EPICS is a School of Engineering academic program in which multidisciplinary teams of undergraduate students, from freshmen to seniors, work with faculty mentors to solve engineering-related problems for nonprofit organizations.
Students earn academic credit for their work and gain real-life engineering experience. The added bonus is that the students' work benefits the community.
Ceylan is one of 10 students on the EPICS Wetlands team. The team's goal is to expand awareness and appreciation for Central California's wetlands by developing online content that will educate everyone from kindergartners to senior citizens about the importance of preserving grasslands as a natural habitat.
The group's goal is to launch a Web site that will contain blog postings and information about the role wetlands play in supporting area wildlife. The group also plans to install a wireless, solar-powered Webcam in a wetlands area, which will capture images so that viewers can see the area "up close" via a computer.
As team leader, Ceylan oversees the team's efforts and meets weekly with team mentor Thomas Harmon , a professor in the School of Engineering . The experience he and other students are gaining is invaluable.
"This is teaching us about what real-life engineers are doing," Ceylan said. "When I look at my teammates, I don't see students. I see future engineers. (Our work) is teaching us about solving problems, teamwork, developing good communication skills and leadership."
Developing good communications skills is old hat to Ceylan. Though he was born in the United States, Ceylan's parents moved back to their home country of Turkey when he was still a baby. Five years ago, Ceylan returned to the United States and settled in Contra Costa County. He enrolled at Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek as a sophomore. At the time, he didn't speak English.
But he learned the language quickly. During his first semester at the high school, a counselor suggested he enroll in a study hall class, but Ceylan wanted to take physics instead.
He sat near his teacher and watched as she drew illustrations and used pictures to explain concepts. He picked up the information easily. By his junior year, Ceylan was taking Advanced Placement calculus and physics courses.
When he first visited UC Merced, he immediately felt like he belonged. "That first visit closed the deal for me," he said. "I felt like a winner here."
Being a part of the EPICS program and other campus groups such as the Film Association and Best Buddies, has "encouraged me to get to know my community and other students," he said.
When asked about his future goals, Ceylan said he'll consider continuing school to earn a master's degree. Eventually, he wants to pursue an engineering career "in an entrepreneurial way that will create more jobs."