In the span of ten years, Ben Bowman went from an aspiring fine arts painter to successful project manager for a major construction firm in the Twin Cities. Clearly that path is far from linear, so how did he get from point A to point B? For Ben, the answer to that question has everything to do with education.
“Education was a means to make a big change in my life, and it opened a lot of doors for me,” Ben says. “I returned to school to get my degree in Construction Management, and that decision changed my life. I knew I wanted to give back to affect change in others’ lives and careers, too.”
Today, Ben is an alumnus of the Construction Management program as well as an instructor for the program. This is the story of how he got there.
Eighteen years ago, Ben enrolled in a fine arts program, earning his bachelor’s degree with a major in painting and a minor in art history. He figured he would one day become a professor, teaching other young artists and art historians. This vision required further education, so Ben applied to three MFA programs.
And he was rejected by all three.
“In hindsight, those rejection letters were some of the best correspondence I’ve ever received,” Ben says with a laugh.
The rejection letters formed an impasse that forced Ben to rethink his plan. In the meantime he worked in a coffee shop, quickly moving into a management position there. Amid the espresso shots, team of baristas, and logistics of running the shop, Ben realized a couple of things. First, he saw that he really enjoyed management and business. Second, he came to the realization that it wasn’t art specifically that called to him; rather, it was building things. His eureka moment was when he saw that construction was the professional path he wanted to pursue.
Based in Milwaukee at the time, Ben researched programs nationwide that could give him the educational kick-start he needed to change professional directions. The Construction Management (CM) degree at CCAPS appealed to him so much that he and his wife packed up and moved to the Twin Cities.
An Education in Construction
Enrolling in the program proved more difficult than anticipated. Only one of Ben’s undergrad courses transferred over to satisfy prereq requirements. His advisor recommended that he attend a community college to earn those necessary course credits, and Ben took the advice. But it wasn’t easy.
Ben remembers that on his first day of community college, the teacher passed out note cards with icebreaker questions on them. “My card asked what kind of pets I have. I was so nervous to be back in school that I spelled ‘dog’ wrong! That was Day One, and I’m happy to say it only went up from there,” he says.
Finally, Ben was admitted to the CM degree program, and he spent the next two years eagerly taking courses and drinking up all the knowledge this new field had to offer. Differing greatly from the abstract nature of fine arts, construction offered Ben the opportunity to seek precise answers to questions and gain access to applied knowledge—a change that thrilled him.
“I remembered feeling so frustrated in art school that there was no right or wrong answer,” he says. “I craved applied and accurate answers, and that’s what I got with construction. My structures class, for example, was very math-oriented. There’s a lot of calculations you have to do and physics principles you have to understand. As I was drawing free-body diagrams and doing those calculations, I thought, ‘I’m so glad I’m here.’”
Ben chose a commercial construction track as his area of focus within the major, and after a successful internship with Adolfson & Peterson Construction, he was offered a job as a field engineer. Ben completed his degree and officially entered a new career path.
But that was not the end of academia for Ben.
From Student to Teacher
It wasn’t long after Ben graduated and started his new job that he enrolled in an MBA program. Juggling full-time work and school, he doubled down on learning about business and its applications to construction. The postgraduate degree added to his body of knowledge, and Ben felt himself emerging at a place of gratitude for all the opportunities that education afforded him, such as the promotion he received to become a project manager with his employer.
“The reason I got excited about teaching at the U is because education changed my life. My degree in construction management transformed everything. I was able to do really meaningful work. I owe all that to the U of M.”
Ben’s gratitude made him want to give back to the next generation of students in the field. Serendipitously, around that same time, Faculty Director of the Construction Management program, Peter Hilger, reached out to Ben, asking if he would be interested in teaching an estimating course. Ben leaped at the chance, happy for an occasion to give back to his alma mater. Today, Ben talks about how rewarding it is to see his students grasp new ideas that he teaches them in his course.
When asked why he makes an effort to teach the next generation of construction management students in addition to working full-time, Ben, who’s very animated and positive, becomes quite serious and says, “The reason I got excited about teaching at the U is because education changed my life. Before I went back to school, my earning potential was pretty low, and there weren’t many doors open to me. My degree in construction management transformed everything. My income went up, and I was able to do really meaningful work. I owe all that to the U of M.”