Former Union Boilermaker Receives Prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship

January 2010 By

OXFORD, Miss. - When he was 14, Brian Michael Watson dropped out of high school. At 16, he earned his GED and went to work for five years as a union boilermaker.

Now at 25, things have changed for Watson. He recently received the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship and is majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of Mississippi after transferring from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. His decision to further his education has refocused his future.

"I really wasn't satisfied with my lifestyle and the way things were going," Watson said. "I didn't feel like I had a fulfilling future ahead of me in that course of life."

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation's Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship helps the nation's top community college students complete their bachelor's degrees by transferring to a four-year college or university. It provides up to $30,000 a year to each of approximately 30 students selected annually.

A Pascagoula native, Watson was a member of Local 112 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. After working as a boilermaker for several years, he was eager for a change, so he considered joining the military and spoke with several recruiters. This led him to take the ACT, on which he scored extremely well.

"Having been out of school for so long, it was surprising that I had such a high ACT score," he said. "I realized that I had more potential than I thought."

His score of 32 earned him a full scholarship to MGCCC, so he decided right then to return to school.

Mary Sison, director of the honors program at MGCCC, was Watson's mentor throughout his tenure there. After instructing him in a history course, she encouraged him to join the honors program.

"Michael is an excellent student - extremely intelligent and versatile - well-versed in a wide array of topics," Sison said. "He loves to learn, and he loves to be in an intellectual environment."

Community service has been a large part of Watson's college experience. As part of the college's honors biology program, he worked as an intern at the Gulf Coast Research Lab and the Ocean Springs school district, providing a space science curriculum for gifted third-graders. He also has been involved with coastal cleanups, heart walks, Relay for Life, Habitat for Humanity and breast cancer awareness events.

"As a union boilermaker, you're expected to provide services to the community," he said. "This instilled in me a sense of volunteerism. So any time the opportunity came up through the honors program, I jumped at the opportunity."

During his two years at MGCCC, Watson qualified every semester for the President's List with a 4.0 grade-point average. He was recognized by his campus for the first-place presentation in science education at the 2009 Mississippi Academy of Sciences.

These and other accomplishments led Sison to recommend him for the Cooke Foundation Scholarship.

"Michael was a great candidate for the JKC scholarship mainly because of his motivation," Sison said. "That he was one of the few students to take the time to construct such an excellent application says something about him. It was easy to recommend him."

Upon learning that he had won the scholarship, Watson was speechless.

"It's hard to put that feeling into words," he said. "I've always been averse to any kind of debt. Without the scholarship, I would have been forced into the position of taking out a student loan. So once I received it, it was a huge load off."

Watson's transfer to Ole Miss has gone well.

"I've really enjoyed it so far," he said. "It's been kind of a culture shock coming from the Coast, but I'm starting to get into the swing of things here."

Faculty in the mechanical engineering department praise Watson's dedication and vision.

"Our slogan in the mechanical engineering department is 'Student-Focused and Research-Driven,'" said Arunachalam Rajendran, chair of the department. "Michael reminds us every day of our commitment to our students in teaching and service. His success story further illustrates that if one pursues his or her own dream with zeal and persistence, then according to Helen Keller, 'We can do anything we want to if we stick to it long enough.'"

Watson has big plans. This summer he intends to apply for a highly competitive NASA internship. After completing his undergraduate degree, he plans to attend graduate school and eventually work as an engineer.

"I want to be on the cutting edge of engineering design, and I would like to make significant contributions to society," he said.

For more information on the UM School of Engineering, go to