James "Jim" Hermanson was one of 1,200 workers laid off in 2009 at the General Motors Co. plant in Janesville, Wis., as an absentee replacement worker. It was a "devastating blow" Jim said, who had been employed by the company for 15 years.
While working for GM, one of Hermanson's jobs was the observation of how employees endure monotonous assembly line work, which fueled Hermanson's interest in the safety and health of workers. Hermanson also had the opportunity to attend college classes held at the plant.
Yet when Hermanson was laid off, he found himself at a loss as to what his next step in life should be.
"I was depressed, and it took a little while to realize it's not only me, but all the people [affected by the lay offs]," Hermanson said.
Yet, after meeting with Sang D. Choi, professor of occuppational and environmental safety and health at UW-Whitewater, Hermanson was convinced that becoming a student at the university was that next step for him.
At 42 years old, Hermanson signed up as a full-time student in the spring of 2010, becoming one of 808 non-traditional students (25 years and older) currently enrolled at UW-Whitewater.
When asked if his age was ever a factor at UW-Whitewater, Hermanson said the only time he felt out of place was during his Warhawks SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration) experience.
"Maybe non-traditional students need a [freshman orientation) all their own," Hermanson said. "By no means is Warhawks SOAR (Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration) a negative [program] ... it's simply a little awkward for non-traditional students. It was really the only time I ever felt out of place."
As far as interaction with faculty and classmates go overall, Hermanson said he thinks everyone works well together.
"I know they know I'm older ... but I don't feel my age," Hermanson said. "Everybody's been great and no one treats me any differently."
Hermanson went on to say that he has made life-long friends so far during his time at the university, even though many of his classmates are at least 10 years younger.
"One of the hardest things I've had to do is not refer to them as 'kids,'" Hermanson said. "I think of us as all being equal. I learn the same things at the same time they do, granted I've got more life experience, but I don't talk down to anybody."
One thing that sets Hermanson apart from the traditional student, as well as the majority of non-traditional students, is the day-to-day balance he must keep between classes, his part-time, on-campus job, and his role as husband to his wife, Shar, and father to his two daughters. Hermanson said optimism is one of the things that keeps him going.
"I'm an eternal optimist," he said. "I always try to look at the upside to everything."
This optimism carries over into Hermanson's extracurricular activities, as he is a member of the UW-Whitewater Cycling Club and president of the Student Safety Club.
In February, Choi and Hermanson will be co-presenting a paper titled "Study of Musculoskeletal Risks of the Office-Based Surgeries" at the 18th World Congress on Ergonomics in Recife, Brazil. Hermanson said he used his combined experience in physical therapy and observations of assembly line workers at GM with his dedication to the health and safety of workers to make this paper possible.
"This is a prestigious conference," Choi said. "People from all over the world will come."
The topic has to do with how health care providers also suffer from occupational safety issues.
"Something like this has never been done in the United States," Choi said. "Jim is on the forefront of this type of research."
Choi said he encourages Hermanson to continue his education and earn a doctorate degree.
"[Hermanson has the ability to] bridge the gap between academia and the practitioners," Choi said.
Hermanson will graduate from UW-Whitewater in May of 2012 with a degree in occupational and environmental safety and health.