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Graduation Ends (for Now) Family’s 20-Year History at Penn College

When T. Mitchell Bird walks across the Community Arts Center’s stage on May 16 and receives a bachelor’s degree, he will turn the page toward a new life and end one of the longest, unique chapters in Pennsylvania College of Technology’s history.

Mitchell will become the last of five siblings to earn a degree from the college. Since 1995, at least one “Bird brother” has been enrolled at the institution. Counting Mitchell’s pending graduation, the five brothers, all Dean’s List students, have earned eight degrees.

“Some people will say they can’t afford Penn College. I say, ‘You cannot afford not to go to Penn College,’” says matriarch Janice Bird, 69. “You get a good job in your field after you graduate. All our boys are doing well. They received an education to obtain not only a beginning position, but they all moved up. I’m 100-percent Penn College.”

The Bird family, of Canton, has sent five sons to Penn College since 1995. From left, Ross; Guston; their mother, Janice; Mitchell; their father, the late James ("Jim"); Jennings; and Seth.
The Bird family, of Canton, has sent five sons to Penn College since 1995. From left, Ross; Guston; their mother, Janice; Mitchell; their father, the late James (“Jim”); Jennings; and Seth.

Oldest son Ross W. Bird (1999 associate degree in electronics technology and a 2001 bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering technology) is president of Williamsport-based QorTek, a military and aerospace research company.

Jennings W. Bird (2000 associate degree in welding technology and a 2004 bachelor’s degree in welding and fabrication engineering technology) is production manager and a welding engineer at Valmet, a global fabrication service and technology supplier for the pulp, paper and energy industries in Lancaster, South Carolina.

Seth H. Bird (2003 bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering technology) is the operational excellence manager for Coca-Cola in Milesburg.

Guston J. Bird (2007 associate degree in information technology and a 2010 bachelor’s degree in information technology: network specialist concentration) is network administrator and interim assistant director of networking at Bucknell University.

The youngest son, Mitchell, who completed an engineering internship at Structural Integrity Associates in State College, plans to pursue a career in the electronics field after receiving his bachelor’s degree in electronics and computer engineering technology.

“They influenced me by example,” Mitchell said, referring to his brothers. “They helped show me that, through God and a lot of hard work and determination, I could have a great education that will yield a good job that I can enjoy, and that also will provide my family with a good life.”

The elder Bird brothers established ingenuity as a family hallmark.

“My family is all of an engineering mindset, and whether it is an electrical circuit design, the information flow through a network or the physical properties of a properly welded joint, we like to know how the world works and like to be highly involved in making it better,” Seth said.

Jim and Janice Bird moved their young family to Canton from Massachusetts in 1980 to escape the high cost of living in the Bay State. A Williamsport native, Jim graduated in 1962 from Williamsport High School, which was housed in what is now the Klump Academic Center on Penn College’s main campus. Jim relied on his carpentry skills to operate a home restoration business in Canton until his death in 2013. During most of that time, Janice concentrated on homeschooling the boys.

“They had ‘x’ amount to do every day, and only when it was done, and done correctly, could they leave,” Janice said. “They became very good at realizing how to learn and how to fix things that were wrong, because they weren’t free until they got it done. There was no yellow school bus coming to save them!

That tough-love approach to education paid off. Rather than shying from challenges, the Bird sons embraced them. They grew to love problem-solving; the more difficult, the better.

“We were shown how to do things from a very young age,” said Ross, who has six electronics-related patents in his name. “Being motivated wasn’t optional. I think all my brothers and I have the work ethic of the last generation, because we hung around our parents rather than young people.”

During that time, they engaged in myriad hands-on activities, whether helping their father with his restoration business or completing a practical school assignment devised and delivered by their mother.

“In one word, she was focused,” said Jennings. “She always showed us how each area of study related to life and our places in the upcoming workforce.”

The family’s love of hands-on learning and the manageable commute from their 19th-century brick home in Canton made Penn College the natural choice when Ross became the first of the Birds to pursue postsecondary education.

“I liked the fact that there were three hours of lab time per course, per week. That’s how I learn best,” said Ross, who Janice dubs the “family guinea pig.”

Like his brothers who would follow, Ross learned well. His internship at QorTek led to a full-time job as an electronics engineer. Ten years later, he became president of the company. Today, 10 of his 15 engineers are Penn College graduates.

Ross’ experience at the college and post-commencement success made it a foregone conclusion that his brothers would pick the same school.

“I have known since a young age that I would be the last brother to graduate from Penn College,” Mitchell said. “Since I was 14, I knew exactly what degree I wanted to come here for.”

“If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” Ross said. “The education I received was fantastic. There was no reason for them to go anywhere else.”

That included Janice. Inspired by her sons, she attended college for the first time and earned an associate degree in electronics technology at Penn College in 2003. Her teacher for three courses? Her son Ross, who by that time was an adjunct instructor for the college.

“It was like, ‘Yeah, you taught me all those years, and now I get to teach you,’” Ross said. “I remember giving a homework assignment back, and the guy sitting next to her went, ‘Man, he gave his mom a B.’ I thought that was pretty telling. Her grades were earned.”

They were also excellent. Janice continued the family tradition of making the Dean’s List.

“She would say to us, ‘There are two things in this world – results and excuses, and nobody cares about excuses,’” said Guston, who is a staff sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. “When she set out to get her degree, I knew there weren’t going to be excuses, just results.”

At commencement, Janice enjoyed the rare honor of walking in the same ceremony as her son Seth.

“That was something really special after all she had sacrificed for me over the years to ensure that I was provided every opportunity to succeed in life,” Seth said. “What a better way to end my time at Penn College than to celebrate with my mother and graduate with her.”

For Mitchell’s graduation, Janice will take her more customary seat in the audience. While Mitchell is the last of her sons to earn a Penn College degree, Janice does expect to return to commencement in the future.

“I’m grooming the next one, you bet,” she said when discussing homeschooling Ross’ 16-year-old son, Wescot. “He’s very motivated and hands-on. Wescot is not going to let us down. Wescot is a Bird. He’ll be coming to Penn College.”

That declaration pleases Jeffrey B. Weaver, associate professor of electronics and computer engineering technology, who has taught three of the Bird brothers.

“I’m sure he will be a well-rounded person with the same values, morals and beliefs as his parents and grandparents,” Weaver said. “The Birds are a special bunch.”

For more about Penn College, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

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