Montana State University

MSU engineering grad juggles studies, family to earn degree

May 3, 2013 -- Sepp Jannotta, MSU News Service

Nontraditional student Nicholas Pfister of Manhattan (at left) earned a bachelor's in civil engineering from Montana State University. He is pictured here with (from left) his son Phineas, 2, his wife Heidi with 6-month-old Abraham, daughters Celia, 15, and Olive, 4. (MSU Photo by Sepp Jannotta).   High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN - In the end, it turns out Nicholas Pfister's road to a college degree from Montana State University was paved with the sense of responsibility that comes from love, a love he says is born of a commitment to his family and his faith.

With a couple of false starts toward a bachelor's degree when he lived in Wisconsin, the nontraditional student from Manhattan admits it was not always so.

"I started college with no clue what I wanted to do," said Pfister, who is graduating from MSU's College of Engineering with a degree in civil engineering. "Over the years, I did a little school here and there, but I still didn't really know what I wanted to do.... I was the epitome of irresponsibility."

On Saturday, with his wife and four children watching - two of whom were born during his MSU tenure - Pfister will be one of the expected 1,335 undergraduate students walking in MSU's commencement ceremony.

When the ceremony is over, Pfister said he expects there will be an emotional moment with his family. "They are excited to have me back," the 31-year-old Pfister said.

Pfister said his world now is very different from the one he occupied after gradating high school when he started at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisc., his home town.

Pfister said the lack of a practical focus and a youthful disregard for an academic accountability combined to make those early attempts at college fruitless.

After moving to Montana, things began to get somewhat more real, Pfister said. He and his wife, Heidi, started a family. Then the U.S. economy collapsed into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

He had been employed at a cabinet shop. But the need to provide for his family during uncertain times was a wake-up call to return to school, a decision Heidi supported all the way, he said.

"She really has been the unseen agent in all of this," Pfister said. "That support is really impossible to understate. It's been huge."

Though finishing his bachelor's while raising four children was difficult, Pfister said he has been sustained by his Christian faith. When things seemed insurmountable, his faith provided him with the endurance, character and hope he needed to persevere, he said.

And if his push to finish his engineering degree was complicated by other responsibilities, Pfister said his love for his family also simplified things.

"Sure, it's hard," he said. "I can't study at home and there are times when I have to sacrifice a grade for the sake of my family. But it's also a motivating factor - I always wanted to get my work done so I could get home and spend time with them."

Pfister is quick to point out that there are a lot of nontraditional students at Montana State University who go through the same thing.

In fact, for the 2012-13 academic year, MSU had 2,294 students older than 24, the upper end of the traditional age class. At 31, Pfister is not the oldest graduate. With four kids, he'd guess he's not even the graduate with the most mouths to feed.

But with a wife and four children supporting him, Pfister said he knows one thing for sure: He's come through college at just the right time.

"My perspective is that everything has happened for a purpose," Pfister concluded. "I wouldn't trade my experiences because they've all formed this amalgam of what I am now."

Although he's had to maintain a dual focus, Pfister said he has really benefited from the education he received at MSU, and he gave particular credit to the faculty in the College of Engineering.

"The Civil Engineering Department has great professors," he said. "I don't ever recall walking into one of their offices and feeling unwelcome. Some of them have really helped shape who I am in a professional sense."

Joel Cahoon, Pfister's adviser and a professor of civil engineering, said even as Pfister was trying to figure out which civil engineering discipline was right for him, he showed a lot of tenacity and professionalism in his approach to the degree. Selecting a discipline - he finally settled on geotechnical engineering - was a process that Pfister really took seriously, Cahoon said.

"Our 19- and 20-year old students aren't scrutinizing our program to that level of detail," Cahoon said. "But Nick was very convinced that he wanted to get this right. I think he approached it with the idea that he's 30 years old and maybe he's got this one shot to get this right, because the day that he walks out of this, he's going to have bills to pay."

Outside of the classroom, Pfister had a chance to work on projects through MSU's Western Transportation Institute that put him into the role of working with contractors.

"It was a very valuable experience to see the nuts and bolts side of engineering," Pfister said. "It was more than I could ever have learned in a class."

As for the next step, the job hunt will begin right away, Pfister said.

"I know the last semester is supposed to be the job-hunting semester," Pfister said. "But I've really just been focused on passing all my classes."

Cahoon said he should have little trouble finding an employer.

"He's going to do really well because he's a hard worker," Cahoon said. 

Contact: Sepp Jannotta, (406) 994-7371 or