Living Your Values as an Engineer



By Simon Morrow
Jonathan Ellison (CE ’24)

Before making his way to Illinois Institute of Technology to study engineering, Jonathan Ellison (CE ’24) had an entirely different career.

He spent the early 2000s getting an Associate of Arts degree from Full Sail University, working hard to make a career in film. He moved to Chicago in 2006, built his own business, and eventually took a job on the television show Chicago P.D. 

He deeply wanted to make art, but due to his background in construction and DIY building, he grew a reputation as the guy who “can make things happen” when it came to unique challenges to visual storytelling.

“For example, a client might say, ‘We need to put this camera in a crazy position it’s not made for, can you fabricate something?’ or ‘We want to use a webcam to scan the hands of hundreds of convention attendees for a realtime art installation, can you build a prototype?’” says Ellison. 

He says that he’d take on these projects and quickly grow frustrated with the limits of his knowledge and abilities.  

“With the internet, anything you want to know is right there at your fingertips, but you need to know how to ask the question,” says Ellison. “I knew that a material had a particular strength associated with it, but I didn’t know how to find out how strong something was, I didn’t know that there was a thing called ‘the modulus of elasticity.’”

Eventually Ellison started taking community college courses and as he considered what degree he might want to pursue, it became clear that engineering was a path that he had been skirting around his whole life. 

“I think that a lot of the struggles that I had in my career after that really came from me not accepting the fact that I’m just an engineer. I love to make art, but I’m primarily an engineer,” he says.

When Ellison transferred to Illinois Tech, he wasn’t sure what type of engineering to pick. He landed on the civil engineering program because he had the most applicable transferable credits for it. 

“Turns out, I really like it,” he says. “I really like civil engineering, and I like structural engineering.”

As an undergraduate in his 40’s, Ellison wasn’t sure how much he’d have in common with his classmates, but says he’s consistently felt beyond welcomed.

“I think this was probably one of the best places I could have ended up,” says Ellison. “People were excited to have me here. When I’m not here, I’m actually missed. People really want me to be here and to be part of their courses and their projects or groups. I don’t just feel accepted as an older learner, I’m actually valued.”

Ellison’s most recent group project is with a team participating in the United States Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, a national collegiate competition where students design net-zero carbon buildings.

Ellison’s team decided to push the envelope with their design by considering how a home in Miami could be made resilient to the hurricanes and flooding that are only expected to get worse due to climate change.

The team came up with a design that looks and functions like a standard single-family home most of the time, but floats during a flood. The project took the team to the decathlon finals. 

“It’s opening up the discussion,” says Ellison. “Maybe this isn’t a great solution to this particular problem, but we are talking about solutions to this problem that were not really talked about prior.”

This is just one example of an aspect of engineering that Ellison says has stuck with him the more he studied it: It’s a field where you have the privilege of responsibility of living your own ideals and values.

“I thought that engineering was just about building stuff, but it’s more about making things better. Not just building something better, but actually making things better. Making your community better, and making the world around you better in whatever way that you have an opportunity to do that. That’s the responsibility of an engineer,” he says. “And maybe making something better means not building something. Maybe it means saying, ‘No, we can’t do that. That’s bad for the environment or for the future generation or for somebody on the other side of the planet.’”

Ellison says he would be excited to work on projects that expand public transportation and care for the environment and hopes to avoid projects that put profit over people. 

An enthusiastic believer in lifelong learning, he hopes to return to Illinois Tech at some point for his master’s degree. 

“I hope that I never get to a place where there’s nothing left to learn,” he says.