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From Trade School to Bachelor’s Degree

High school dropout Chander Letulle never thought of himself as a scholar.

Yet he managed to turn his wastewater operator certifications into an associate and then a bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn a master’s degree in environmental engineering, all to advance his career and provide for his family.

His journey has been an unusual and challenging one, but he has tackled each step with resilience and aplomb. He hopes to share his story with others facing the same challenges and inspire them to act if they’ve been thinking about pursuing higher education.

”Maybe my experience can help people get there with less struggle,” Letulle said.

A Running Start

Growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana, Letulle didn’t connect with high school and dropped out to join the Army. With high marks on his high school equivalency and GED exam, he stayed in the Army for two years then transferred to the California National Guard in Santa Barbara to work in offshore oil drilling.

The pay was good but the life of an offshore worker did not match his other dream of getting married and raising a family. He didn’t like the idea of being gone for 14 or 28 days at a time, so he looked for a new job that would keep him closer to home.

He landed a temporary administrative support job at the Goleta Sanitary District in 1999 but soon realized that his lack of an associate or bachelor’s degree would keep him from advancing there.

“College was a big scary place,” Letulle recalled. “I didn’t feel like I was ready academically. But a friend convinced me to take a community college course with him. Sitting in that first class, I realized I could succeed.”

With new confidence, Letulle looked at the requirements for certification programs and degree programs. The degree programs seemed too lengthy. Letulle also had a hard time understanding why he needed to take general education courses that didn’t seem relevant.

“How does art appreciation or literature review make a difference in what I’m doing?” he wondered.

Finding the Right Fit

Santiago Canyon College’s  Water Utility Science Certificates made the most sense to him because they helped him in his subsequent roles as a wastewater treatment operator at Goleta and the City of Redlands. He went on to earn three certificates of achievement and eventually gained new positions at the Inland Empire Utilities Agency as operations supervisor and later deputy manager of operations.

He still thought about the associate degree, especially as he realized more education would be needed for his next career move.  One day, Kirkwood Community College popped up in his research. They offered an associate degree of applied science which required less general education and more emphasis on water and wastewater treatment. He signed up and earned his Associate of Science in Water Environmental Technology in 2011.

Never one to rest, Letulle continued climbing the organizational chart and scaling new educational heights. He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from American Public University and was promoted to manager of operations and maintenance at IEUA. His Master’s of Science in Environmental Engineering Systems (Water) from the University of California, Riverside came next, as did a new role as director of engineering and operations at Jurupa Community Services District.

Overcoming Obstacles

For many people, money can be a big barrier to pursue further education. However, Letulle encourages them to see education as an investment in themselves and their future careers. He also suggests leveraging tuition reimbursement programs, frequently offered as part of employee benefit packages, and finding affordable higher education options like community colleges and APU.

Letulle was particularly impressed with APU because the private, for-profit online university system helps busy professionals get their coursework done by offering classes on a rolling basis in an eight-week format. Classes start every Monday and happen all year round, not just in fall and spring like many community colleges.

This means that degrees can be earned in less time. One of APU’s unique and valuable benefits to quickly obtaining a degree is the school allows students to receive transfer credits for previous military service, certifications, on-the-job training, and real-world experience. State Water Board, CWEA, and CA-NV AWWA certifications may qualify with APU as transfer credits.

“My road was a long one,” Letulle said. “I thought to myself, if I could build a program to address all that pain, what would it look like?”

He volunteered to help APU make that program a reality. The result is APU’s new Associate Degree in Technical Management with a Concentration in Utilities Management that launched in January 2023.

“Most important to me was making sure people were taking classes that mattered and that they received college credit for their water and wastewater certifications,” Letulle said.

He also liked that APU was able to build a program with a reliable, consistent timeline that allowed for busy professionals to plan ahead.

A Clear-eyed View

Letulle’s story is an inspiring one, illustrating the importance of education in career advancement. So far, he has been able to convince some of his colleagues to follow in his footsteps toward further education. One colleague is finishing up his bachelor’s degree this summer. Two are earning their associate degrees and a handful more are thinking of applying.

In the future, Letulle hopes to see APU attract enough water industry pros to its program so that an entire water industry cohort could begin with everyone starting and finishing at same time.

He also hopes to find other like-minded individuals willing to help those just starting out. Above all, he wants to tell people that no matter which program they choose, college degrees are within their grasp if they’re willing to make the time.

“Degrees help convey credibility, which is important to public agencies in demonstrating how they’re spending public money,” Letulle said. “I’ve seen people get passed up for opportunities because they hadn’t prepared for the next level of their career.”

He hopes to change that by making it easier for folks to follow in his footsteps and achieve their own dreams and goals.

Written for the California Water Environment Association in 2023.


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