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Kris Stopka Blends Multiple Internships with a Love of Learning

Monday, July 06, 2015
Kris Stopka works with a fellow student in a laboratory.

Team effort: Kris Stopka discusses his latest engineering project with senior mechanical engineering major Chelsea Rossick.

As the 20th century's ideological war between communism and capitalism fades deeper into history, stories like Kris Stopka's will become even rarer.

Stopka grew up in southern Poland and was raised by parents who experienced life behind the Iron Curtain. His mother and father worked on a farm after achieving just an eighth-grade education. They remember food shortages and the day-to-day scarcity resulting from Poland's then-planned economy.

"My father didn't see a light bulb until he was eight years old," Stopka says.

Not long after the Soviet Union collapsed and Poland became independent from Moscow, Stopka's family moved to the United States, settling in a Polish section of Chicago where Kris and his family lived in his grandparent's basement.

"You got to know everyone pretty well," he says, smiling at the childhood memory.

Stopka's family later moved to the Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn, where, at Oak Lawn Community High School, he crossed paths with physics teacher Chris Repa, a 1999 Rose-Hulman chemical engineering graduate. Repa encouraged his student to pursue his engineering ambitions by attending Rose-Hulman. It's a piece of advice that will help shape the rest of Stopka's life.

"Kris enjoys learning for its own sake, not because it will eventually lead to more money or an improved career," Repa says. "He truly appreciates the opportunity that this country and Rose-Hulman have afforded him over the years."

Stopka also lives by a simple motto: Be better today than you were yesterday.

That's why the mechanical engineering student has obtained as much hands-on work experience as possible through internships. While many of his classmates may have experienced one or two internships, Stopka is currently working on his sixth this summer.

The list of internships began after his sophomore year at Diesel Radiator Company in Chicago. Subsequent stops have had him working at GE Aviation in Terre Haute, Indiana and Tesla Motors in California. The Tesla internship was especially satisfying, Stopka says, because the company had turned him down twice before.

Chris Repa And Kris Stopka

Honoring Mentor: Kris Stopka nominated his former high school physics teacher Chris Repa (left), a 1999 Rose-Hulman chemical engineering alumnus, for the institute's Outstanding Education Mentor Award. (Photo by Terry Miller)

"It was rewarding to finally get that offer, to persevere," he says.

Another internship with GE Aviation, this time in Rockford, Illinois, was followed by an adventure spending the fall of 2014 at the one of America's most innovative companies: SpaceX, at its headquarters in Los Angeles.

"Everyone is crazy ambitious," Stopka remarks about employees at SpaceX, a private company dedicated to space travel. A 60-hour work week is normal, but the time flies by, he recalls, stating, "It's really a privilege to be there."

Stopka is doing his final internship this summer at GE Aviation's operations center in Cincinnati, Ohio, before graduating after the upcoming fall academic quarter. A slight delay in graduation was a small price to pay for all of the valuable internship experiences, he says. And, those internships made him appreciate the opportunity to return to the classroom even more.

Attending Rose-Hulman is a "privilege," Stopka says, adding: "Out of all the things that make Rose-Hulman great, it is the dedication and enthusiasm of the professors and staff that have made his experience truly remarkable."