Teaching Support Specialist David Hartino is especially equipped to make students’ Cornell engineering experiences applicable to the non-academic world; he lived there for decades before reentering the College of Engineering at age 40.
“My classmates really didn’t care that I was twice their age,” Hartino said of his reintroduction to college life. “I got into study groups, I was really welcomed in, and that says an awful lot.”
Hartino briefly attended the University of Buffalo after high school, before leaving to “find my way in the world, because I knew everything then, obviously,” as he said sarcastically.
He said he ended up spending over 20 years in the workforce before completing his college degree.
“I tried restaurant work, then I got a job on a construction site and I was a laborer — carrying cinder blocks up scaffolding, hauling lumber,” he said. “It doesn’t take long to figure out you better learn something, you better get yourself an education in some manner.”
Hartino said he remained ambitious, emphasizing the importance of being “hungry.”
“If you work hard and you take responsibility for your actions, you can be promoted,” he said.
Hartino said he knew construction work was “limiting” and ended up going back to school at Monroe Community College at the age of 38. He went on to graduate from Cornell with an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and earned a masters in engineering in 2015.
“I was so far behind that I couldn’t even matriculate into a community college’s engineering program,” he said. “My math wasn’t up to snuff, and that’s pretty humbling right there.”
A Rochester native, Hartino said he was familiar with Ithaca long before he joined the Cornell community.
“When I was younger [my family and I] would come here for vacations — we would go camping, canoeing and hiking,” he said. “So to actually end up here in Ithaca is kind of where I wanted to be anyway, strangely enough, although I didn’t plan it to happen that way.”
Hartino said he had always leaned toward engineering, beginning with his very first stint in college. He explained he just “had to be ready” to pursue the career with commitment.
“I thought I was way too old to start an engineering career, but I guess not, because it’s worked out pretty well,” he said.
Hartino said he was able to attend Cornell because of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which encourages students from state schools and community colleges to apply to selective universities.
“Just because you’re at a state school doesn’t mean you’re not smart, you just have to understand the opportunities that are there,” he said.
Coming to Cornell was a “tough transition,” Hartino said, but “the attitude of the faculty and the student body here was really not one of elite snobbery; it was ‘Come on in the water’s fine.’”
Hartino also praised the variety of student backgrounds present at the University.
“I was the diversity,” he said. “I was the old man. And I think I brought something to it, but I also learned an awful lot from it. I wasn’t the only one with a story. Very often my classmates were like ‘you wouldn’t believe how I got here’ and I thought ‘try me.’”
Hartino said he developed a stronger motive to succeed while studying at Cornell.
“I spent 20 years on a construction site so I know what happens if you don’t do well, and you can do as well as you want here,” he said. “Everyone has a plan for success and everyone is really motivated here, and you can’t not get caught up in that.”
Hartino currently works as a teaching support specialist, finding fulfillment as a part of the faculty that helped him when he was a student, not too long ago.
He explained that his teaching style is “very unusual in a theoretical based program.”
“Especially in mechanical engineering, sometimes people forget that there’s things that move, and if you open up the hood of your car, there’s an engine in there with gears and grease and cogs and crankshafts,” he explained. “Everything we do here is a homework assignment: you turn it in at midnight even if number five isn’t quite done yet, but in the real world things have to work.”
Hartino said he integrates his practical background into his teaching methods, recognizing when to move on from purely theoretical outlooks.
“I challenge the students every day in every lab exercise to take a look at what we’re learning theoretically and what it means to them in the real world,” he said. “Instead of answering a question, I will ask you 25 more questions to get you to figure the answer out yourself.”
Hartino said he advocates keeping life in perspective and knowing that the department has the students’ best interests at heart.
“Maybe they knocked the ceiling down in your lab two hours before class started and you’re really having a rough time,” he said, referring to his own experience amongst the construction on the engineering quad. “But even if someone growls at you, you should know that for the people in this department, there’s nothing they won’t do for the students.”
Hartino added that being immersed in academia “keeps you young” and “keeps you open for new things and keeps you growing.”
“When you’re the superintendent on a job site you become old fast,” he said. “Here, everyone’s 20 years old and there’s this energy and embracing of everything that is new and is moving, and if you embrace that, then it keeps you young.”