While most adults likely would not think of returning to college after they have become grandparents, 54-year-old Bennie “Ben” Thompson has big aspirations for his growing family.
A U.S. Navy veteran and grandfather of three, the Fayetteville, Tennessee, resident is a senior Honors Transfer Fellow at MTSU pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the Concrete Industry Management Program. Thompson joined the Navy Reserve in 1989, serving as a corpsman during the Persian Gulf War and was deployed as part of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm from November 1990 to May 1991.
After completing his tour overseas, he earned an associate degree in electronics and spent the next 27 years working as a technician in telecommunication engineering, developing high-speed digital equipment for phone and cable companies. His time in this career field involved high-voltage testing of equipment which, on occasion, saw him putting out literal fires.
“Bennie has a wide array of academic interests and could have easily pursued several different thesis topics, but he is focusing on improving the sustainability and environmental impact of using concrete,” said Judy Albakry, an honors academic advisor at MTSU.
“We especially enjoy working with our nontraditional transfer students. These students show high levels of commitment to their plans to graduate from college because they have seen the value of a college degree and how it can impact their lives.”
Due to tariff impacts and downsizing stemming from the pandemic, Thompson was let go from his job, but thanks to his VA benefits, he was able to return to school.
He transferred to MTSU after earning his second associate degree from Nashville State Community College. When most would be looking to retire, Thompson was instead focused on his family and what is important for his future.
“I like to build things and see raw materials come to life as a useful product and, with that, would like to start my own business someday,” he said.
Thompson spoke passionately about his plans for his 13-acre property in Fayetteville, including modifications to wet weather streams and waterfalls on hilly land, multiple tiny homes for his family to enjoy, and even a rideable, fully operational train track to make it easier, and way more fun, to navigate the slopes. It all might seem a little dreamy, but “so was the United States!” he declared.
‘I like the challenge’
Thompson’s continued education will help him to achieve his dreams. He said he learned about opportunities with the University Honors College while at Nashville State preparing for transfer to MTSU. The Honors Transfer Fellowship provides financial and institutional support for transfer students to complete their bachelor’s degrees and helps prepare them for post graduate academic research.
Originally a construction management major, a conversation he had with Kelly Strong encouraged him to pursue concrete industry management instead. Strong is the director of and a professor in the School of Concrete and Construction Management.
Strong offers various industry opportunities as part of his Introduction to the Concrete and Construction Industry course, and alumni speak to current students about their experiences and successes within the industry.
“Even though it is a smaller niche in the overall construction industry, the way our Concrete Industry Management curriculum is structured provides more career pathways for students than construction management,” said Strong. “I think Bennie was excited about that aspect of the program.”
“I like the challenge and look forward to the future,” Thompson said. “The concrete and honors faculty and advisors have been very supportive. They have heard my vision and are putting me in places to help me achieve my goals.”
There is no age limit for learning. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 500,000 adults over age 50 were enrolled in postsecondary institutions in fall 2021, making up almost 4% of students.
Thompson said he has acclimated well and feels accepted by his often-younger classroom peers.
“They’re purposely inclusive and very energetic and invite me to a wide array of functions” he said, admitting that’s “a good and needed thing!”
Mission and purpose
Thompson credits his military service in preparing him for college and said the level of camaraderie within the Honors College and SCCM is a lot like the military in bringing many talents to a central mission and purpose.
One honors student, supply chain management major Priscilla Hammermeister, with whom he works out with occasionally, invited him to a grueling obstacle race in Atlanta in March. Together they turned the opportunity into a recruiting event to promote MTSU’s CIM platform.
“We wanted to recruit those who might be undecided about their majors to the programs,” he stated. “Once they get into the programs, they will find that there are a lot of opportunities and increased networking connections, especially for women and traditionally underrepresented groups in the trades. I am glad to be part of something where people are willing to come together to promote a good idea.
“When I enrolled, I thought I was going to have to travel back and forth every day and thought I would have to situate my course load around as many online classes as possible, but thanks to my friend and founder of Granite Services, Roger Griffin, in keeping with this theme of teamwork, I have a place in Murfreesboro to stay during the week,” Thompson continued.
“Everyone has been really good to help me make it all happen, and for that I am grateful.”
As homework assignment deadlines approached during spring, he jokingly admitted that weekends were a little more chaotic back at home, but he looked forward to the continued growth after graduation within the next year or so.
Thompson also credits support from the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center on campus, as well as the Student Veterans of America MTSU Chapter, which is also known as the Blue Raider American Veteran Organization, or BRAVO. He was recently elected as the BRAVO chapter’s vice president for programs and member development.
He said he is also grateful for the networking opportunities and friendships he has developed during his time at MTSU via CIM. After attending the World of Concrete Exhibition in Vegas in January, Thompsons was inspired by the lineup of companies at the event and met several leaders who invited him to learn more about what they do.
One such leader was Phil Strogen, customer service manager and sales representative with Zimmerman Industries who is also a former Navy senior chief. Thompson said Strogen inspired him with a special gift, a “Chief’s Mess” medallion, encouraging him to a continued relationship and business opportunity in volumetric concrete delivery through Zimmerman Industries.
‘A lot of openings in the industry’
Returning to college has not always been an easy road for Thompson, who said he suffers from PTSD. During a particularly stressful project, he recalled English professor Martha Hixon, who taught his Honors Research Seminar, telling students that “this is college, but this is also life,” and “that college doesn’t supersede life.” He said she emphasized making use of available resources and the importance of reaching out if you need help with anything.
During that class, he experienced several potentially life altering events, including his son’s illness. He wasn’t initially able to complete two of his classes. These struggles threatened his collegiate aspirations but Thompson said he was glad that he was able to be proactive and find out about existing options so he could focus on his son’s health. Fortunately, with a little extra effort, he’ll be able to complete those two classes and continue his educational journey.
“It was good to hear her very genuine level of concern, especially before my needing that kind of support,” Thompson said. “I was able to step back and deal with my family issues, and I am enthusiastic that I will get to finish those classes.”
Thompson said he’s glad to be part of MTSU’s Concrete Industry Management Program and the Honors College, noting that “due to the pandemic and the retiring age demographic, there are a lot of openings in the industry.”
MTSU CIM Director Jon Huddleston added, “Across the country and in most industries, we are seeing what’s called a ‘silver tsunami.’ This term refers to a large portion of our workforce that is above the age of 60 and are therefore exiting the workforce to enjoy retirement.
“Worldwide, concrete is the No. 1 most used building material and the No. 2 most used material next to water. Uses of and technology related to concrete are rapidly expanding and the next rising tech-savvy generation has the potential to greatly expand and build on what has already been developed,” explained Huddleston.
“Traditionally, in the concrete industry, employees spent decades rising through the ranks and in many cases without a college degree. There is tremendous need for educated individuals in the areas of concrete material science and business management. Our graduates can step straight into management roles and lead the next generation of concrete professionals.”
CCM offers two Bachelor of Science degrees, one in construction management and one in concrete industry management. Both programs merge hands-on learning with innovative technology and business management skills.
The Honors College fosters a nurturing academic environment in small class settings. Honors Transfer Fellows receive additional financial aid each semester, and the college also offers numerous scholarships and features several study-abroad opportunities.
— Robin E. Lee (Robin.E.Lee@mtsu.edu)