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Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Jason W. Michener ’03

Engineer, Ford Motor Company

I studied engineering at Princeton because I loved cars, specifically Ford trucks. When I was two, my dad took me to down to the Philadelphia Spectrum to see BigFoot and other monster trucks compete in a giant mud bog competition. I remember, after waiting for what seemed like hours, BigFoot finally coming to the starting line, the thunderous roar as the truck raced through the mud bog slinging mud everywhere, and the rest of the crowd on their feet cheering and screaming as the truck crossed the finish line. It was, and still is, one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life.

Fast forward to when I was 16, had my driver’s license, and had finally saved up to buy my first car, or rather truck. I had by now learned that the massive truck I had seen power through that mud bog at the age of two was a radically modified 4x4 Ford pickup, and I just had to have one of my very own for my first car. I only had about $1,000 so I spent a lot of time looking at a lot of really beat-up, old Ford pickup trucks that summer. So when I finally found one that ran, had a current state inspection, and was blue (just like BigFoot), it was mine.

After about a week I found that my “dream truck” was more nightmare than anything else. The front shocks were shot and the rear shocks had broken off a long time ago. Only the front right brake worked and the whole vehicle would start to shake violently around 55 mph on the highway. I spent my junior and senior years in high school replacing and repairing almost everything on that truck and, to my mom’s surprise, enjoyed every moment of it! I always liked learning about how things worked and now I was getting to learn firsthand, but it was deeper than that: I was building the truck that I had envisioned owning since I was two.

Realizing a dream

During that time, I was applying to colleges and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I liked working on my truck, but figured I couldn’t make a career out of it, and it really wasn’t an occupation you went to college for. I still was wrestling with what I should do the summer before my senior year in high school when my mom decided I should go tour the college campuses I was applying to. It was a cool adventure, but it still didn’t get me any closer to what I wanted to do until we took this one campus tour that led us down into a dusty basement. I don’t honestly remember what university it was, but I do remember what I saw. There, off to the side, sitting by itself, was what looked like an off-road go-cart! I asked the tour guide why it was there and she informed me that it was built by a group of undergraduate students to compete in what she said was the SAE Mini-Baja. I immediately asked what department they were in, and her response became the answer to the question, “What will I do with the rest of my life?”: mechanical engineering. It was fun working on my Ford truck, but maybe I could go to college to learn how to design one.

I’ve never looked back since. I enrolled at Princeton as a mechanical engineer and added aerospace engineering to my major in my sophomore year since the combination seemed to give me all the tools I would need to land my dream job. You see, owning and working on a Ford truck was great, but designing and developing the next generation of Ford trucks would be awesome, so I was preparing myself to be a Ford engineer. I must have talked about it a lot since one of my friends heard about Ford coming to Princeton to speak to the Hispanic Society of Engineers and invited me along. Among other things, the recruiters encouraged us to apply for an internship with Ford for the summer. I did and eventually interned during the summer before my senior year; it turned out to be one of the best summers of my life and also my first and very last job interview. I got an offer to work at Ford following my graduation at Princeton!

I’ve now been a product development engineer at Ford for more than seven years. I’ve done component design, vehicle dynamics, vehicle launch, and vehicle production engineering. I’ve had the privilege to work on and help launch the Ford Escape, Ford Escape Hybrid, Mercury Mariner, Mercury Mariner Hybrid, Ford Ranger, Ford Crown Vic, Mercury Grand Marquis, Lincoln Town Car, Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator, and the recent Ford F-Series—everything from the F-150 all the way up to the F-550. The F-Series programs were, by far, my favorite. My dream had come full circle from watching the massive modified Ford truck crush cars and run mud bogs as a two-year-old to working on a beat-up old ’78 F-150, to designing and launching the 2008 F-250/350/450/550 and 2009 F-150. Princeton also prepared me for another completely separate profession that I never could have seen coming.

Drawing on multiple skills

When I was a freshman, against my engineering adviser’s advice, I enrolled in the “Introductory Drawing” class in Princeton’s visual arts program. I felt I had a natural talent for drawing and that an art class would be a nice break in my class schedule and workload from my engineering classes. Halfway through the class, though, I found myself wishing I had listened to my adviser. As it turned out, I spent more time in the art studio my freshman year than all my freshman labs combined! Who knew art took so much time? 

Fast-forward to 2008, my wife and I had been married for three years and she had just published her first children’s book, Who I Am Not What I Am, and was working on the second but needed a new illustrator. She remembered that I had drawn a couple of pictures of her when we were dating and asked if I thought I could do the illustrations for her second book. I had never done anything like it before, but figured why not. Eight months and many hours later her second book, 100% Real, was published with my illustrations! It was more work than I thought it would be but so was that drawing class.

Because I was able to take an art class as an engineering student at Princeton, I learned the skills and techniques needed to help bring my wife’s dream to life. More important, though, was the fact that I had the opportunity to take a class that had nothing to do with my engineering curriculum. Princeton provided the basic skill I needed to be an engineer, but it also gave me the opportunity to nurture other skills I have so that I would be better equipped to deal with life. Being an engineer at Ford for me is a dream come true, but being able to help make the dreams of the woman I love come true—now, that’s priceless.