Female building automation student adds to diverse skill set
Photos by Scott A. Seroskie, instructor of electrical technologies
Emily K. Cummins says she relishes the challenge of mastering new skills. Her effort at Pennsylvania College of Technology proves that she’s telling the truth. Nontraditional in age and gender for the School of Engineering Technologies, Cummins has earned a plumbing certificate, an associate degree in heating, ventilation & air conditioning technology and a 4.0 GPA in her pursuit of a bachelor’s in building automation engineering technology.
That’s an impressive list of accomplishments for any student, especially for one who returned to school after a decade away from the classroom.
“I’ve been out of my comfort zone a little bit. Accepting that challenge and being successful at it has been really powerful and fulfilling,” said Cummins, an Arizona native who grew up in Penns Valley. “I came here pursuing the plumbing certificate to develop a new skill set. Now I’m developing a completely different skill set that I was not anticipating.”
Perhaps she should have foreseen such an outcome. Seeking new skills has been a way of life for the industrious Cummins since she graduated from Penn State in 2010 with a degree in public relations, advertising and applied communication.
Rather than enter the communications field, she embraced the hospitality industry by working in the “back of the house” at high-end restaurants. “I just always seemed to have my hands in food,” she said.
Nittany Catering in Bellefonte helped cultivate that interest. Cummins worked for the full-service catering company during her junior and senior years at Penn State. When the business became available in 2013, Cummins, then 24, bought it with the assistance of her uncle.
“In order to put yourself in a position where you make it, you have to be a little bit uncomfortable,” she said. “You have to be a little insecure about what you’re doing.”
Eventually, Cummins felt at home running Nittany Catering. A preferred caterer for Penn State, the company grew annually under her stewardship and added event planning to its offerings. When the coronavirus pandemic diminished the demand for catering in 2020, she had seven full-time employees and seven part-timers.
“I’m pretty good at managing a business,” she said. “I made some smart decisions. I’ve been told that I’m a good boss.”
The pandemic helped convince her to become the boss of one.
“It left me with some time, and I got a little bit scared about career security,” Cummins explained. “Catering is anything but. People can cut that from their budget. I wanted a recession-proof job. Plus, I had some plumbing that I wanted to do in my own kitchen.”
Those factors led her to Penn College to experience its applied technology education. Cummins transferred day-to-day operations of Nittany Catering to her sister, Rachel, and spent a year obtaining the plumbing certificate. After employing her newfound skills to remedy her kitchen dilemma, Cummins moved to Williamsport, bought a “fixer-upper” near campus and committed to another two semesters to earn an associate degree in HVAC.
“I am pretty unusual because of my age and my gender,” she said. “A big part of what’s kept me around has been feeling really supported by faculty and other students. The Wildcat community is a thing that I actually feel a part of. And I’m in my mid-30s! I really do think this is a special place.”
One of Cummins’ final courses in the associate degree major – HVAC Controls II-Commercial – sparked her interest in the building automation engineering technology bachelor’s degree. Her instructor, Todd S. Woodling, assistant professor of building automation technology/HVAC electrical, encouraged that pursuit.
“I witnessed her designing and building complex electrical systems with ease,” he recalled. “I also know that building automation engineering is a very robust field in the sense that it offers graduates a very good wage and professional positions that require mature attention to detail.”
An internship at Honeywell focusing on building automation cemented Cummins’ decision to extend her stay at Penn College for the bachelor’s degree.
“Energy systems have a great environmental impact. Building automation plays a huge role in limiting that impact on the environment and on the consumer’s budget,” she said. “It’s fascinating to be able to use new technologies to make buildings extremely efficient, smart and safe. The field itself has been an inspiration to me.”
For her required internship this summer, Cummins could have returned to the familiarity of Honeywell. Instead, she chose a new experience 2,700 miles away in Portland, Oregon. Cummins will intern for Clima-Tech Corp., a commercial building automation contractor with locations throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“I found the company on LinkedIn. They told me that I’ll be their first intern and that I can have a very well-rounded experience,” Cummins said. “I don’t know enough about my potential career paths yet. That’s a goal that I have for this summer. I could be a programmer. I could be an engineer. I could do install. I could do project management.”
She enjoys those options because of the unique Penn College major. Students are exposed to the theory side of building automation but also receive extensive hands-on experience with the tools and programming software utilized by industry.
Cummins also has transformed her home into a lab of sorts. She’s converting it into two units, one to live in for another year and the other to rent. That goal has required considerable plumbing and HVAC work. Recently, she rezoned her boiler system, allowing her to set different temperatures for multiple areas of the house.
“It’s been very cool to implement the skills that I’ve learned here,” Cummins said.
Those skills are in demand.
“We have a 100% graduate placement rate. All of our graduating students have jobs lined up before commencement,” Woodling stated. “We are one of the few colleges in the nation that offers a bachelor of science degree in building automation.”
When she graduates next May, Cummins will be just the fourth woman to obtain that degree during Woodling’s 19 years at the college. She views that fact as an opportunity, not only for herself but also for industry.
“As a woman, you bring something different to the table, like decision-making abilities, problem-solving abilities,” Cummins said. “It makes you a little more valuable in industry. Diversity is important to have.”
Diversity of gender and skills.
For information on Penn College degrees related to HVAC and building automation as well as other majors offered by the School of Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.