Railroaded: Undergraduate education in a workplace environment

One student’s love of trains leads to the ultimate in hands-on learning.

By Rudy Garbely ’12

(originally published in Moravian College's InCommon on May 3, 2012)

I’m now in my final semester as an undergraduate history student, and much like thousands of other senioritis-ridden soon-to-be 2012 college graduates, I’m looking past my graduation toward graduate school and a career. Like most students, I’d like to use my part-time college job as valuable experience when I decide what to do as a career with my newly earned degree, as using both my job and my degree together will probably translate to a better career in a field that I’m interested in.

However, there aren’t many other full-time students at small, private liberal arts colleges who lead not-so-secret double lives working in heavy industry. This probably explains the strange looks and fascinated responses I get whenever a fellow student finds out that I work for a railroad. It runs counter to the standard college job of sitting at a cash register or flipping burgers, and the industrial element is almost an alien concept to a strictly academic community comprised of those who aspire to have something better than a "blue collar" career.

Even though their fascination will hold their interest for a while as I explain my work (as though it was an option they had never before considered for themselves), they invariably lose interest when they learn that I often wake up around 5 a.m. to commute from school over an hour to work, where I perform a wide variety of tasks for ten hours before combating rush hour traffic on the way back to my dorm. For many adults, this is their normal routine, but to the average full-time college student, spending two days a week like that is a travesty, and goes against the “college experience.” As their interest in my job wanes, I assure them that I actually enjoy it, and they become convinced that I’m either insane or delirious, effectively ending the conversation.

The reality is that I love what I do, because it gives me the opportunity to work on and around the very railroads that I study as a history student. I spend my days off from class doing everything from overhauling old diesel locomotives to promoting passenger train travel, all the while coming into contact with (and participating in) integral parts of the industry along the way. When I wrote my honors thesis about a railroad, I was able to draw on my railroad experience to analyze railroad paperwork that may have been virtually indecipherable to an untrained historian. I was also able to use personal experience to interpret interviewees’ railroad jargon, and independently validate claims that certain locomotives were maintenance nightmares while others ran like Swiss watches – claims that significantly strengthened my thesis. As I have been able to work railroading history more and more into my educational curriculum through paper assignments and projects, my knowledge of the inside world of railroading has helped me to further develop and expand my historical studies.

Sometimes it’s rather challenging to be in the right frame of mind to rewire a 1920s passenger car on Monday and sit in classrooms for eight hours on Tuesday, but it’s a good balance of both classroom studies and field experience that truly educates a student in any field, not just railroad history. I get my field experience by working on the same historic railroad equipment that I study in the classroom and in my research. As I work toward my ultimate career goals, I will continue my unique railroad experiences and enhance my knowledge of the industry that I study, which should serve me well into the future.