Engineering, NROTC provide Vanderbilt undergrad challenging ways to serve

It’s just a typical Wednesday, but mechanical engineering senior and Naval ROTC Midshipman William Bearden arrives for an interview in a pressed suit, red tie and black patent leather shoes polished to a mirror shine.

If you ever see him wearing jeans, he jokes, the day is not going well. If he’s in jogging pants, don’t even ask.

There’s a less noticeable way Bearden stands out from his classmates: He’ll graduate in May after only three years at Vanderbilt, even though NROTC-related classes and labs consume hours of every day but don’t count for credit. He holds NROTC leadership positions that require keeping a close eye on fellow cadets. There are morning drills and battalion events to plan.

The answer to why he works so hard might be expected, but Bearden delivers it with unexpected passion.

“I’m an able-bodied American citizen, and I feel that, for everything the United States has given me and will give my children and grandchildren, I had the obligation to represent my family in one of the branches of service. I was willing to volunteer. If they said no, so be it,” he says.

Midshipman William Bearden

Bearden’s path to Vanderbilt started with his parents, Steven and Christine Bearden – who met on the wall by Rand Dining Center — and his godparents, Gary and Carroll Kimball. All graduated in the mid-80s, and Gary Kimball, now an associate professor of the practice of managerial studies, and Steven Bearden played football here.

The Beardens had four children – William, 20, arriving as a twin with his sister Caroline – and raised them in Summit, N.J. William is the only one who attended Vanderbilt, convinced during a scouting visit to the campus NROTC to attend here instead of the Naval Academy.

He arrived with lots of Advanced Placement credit from high school and the willingness to take a heavy course load. An NROTC scholarship pays for his tuition, books and lab fees in return for a five-year commitment to the Navy. Vanderbilt offered a Bearden a supplementary scholarship for room and board.

It’s an excellent way to pay for college, a lesson Submarine & Nuclear Power Officer Lt. Brian Tribbett says he learned as an electrical engineering major Penn State. Tribbett, now a naval science instructor in Vanderbilt’s NROTC, says the corps also provided invaluable preparation for the Navy and professional life afterward.

“Going into the nuclear training pipeline and then serving as a nuclear-trained officer provided me with many opportunities to use the skills I learned,” he says. “The entire ship is a complex engineering system.  My background in electrical engineering helped me manage that information as an officer.”

He says Bearden shows an innate ability to lead and is certain to find success as a naval officer.

Bearden says he planned to major in civil engineering but quickly switched to mechanical when he realized its potential applications in the Navy.

“I didn’t much like chemistry, coding gives me nightmares, and my grandfather was a mechanical engineer,” he says. “Mechanical engineering provides the most understanding of physical concepts that apply in any other field. Mechanical engineers don’t know as much as electrical engineers about circuitry and coding, but we take those classes, and we need that information for the moving parts in the devices we design.”

He’s currently working on research with Mechanical Engineering Professor Robert Pitz that involves using lasers to measure drag and lift.

Bearden will receive his naval commission the same day as his May graduation. He’s hoping his first assignment will be staying at Vanderbilt for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering before beginning 15 months of training. After that, the Navy will assign him to a boat and a division to lead as an ensign.

Nobody can relate to what that life is like except other people in the Navy, Bearden says. Work is seven days a week, 16 hours a day, 500 feet beneath the surface.

And he’s looking forward to it.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering