Andrew Vansteen at work during his internship



When Jerry Liang began his freshman year at Southern Lee four years ago, he wasn't just starting at a new school in a new city. He was in a new country – a new continent, even.

Although he came to the United States with a working knowledge of English from classes he'd taken as a child in his native China, Liang still had a serious language barrier to overcome just to get going at his new high school.

“When I came here, my English was not good. It was a hard time,” Liang said. “But everybody was talking in English and it forced me to have to say everything in English. I forced myself to say more and talk to people, and my English got better.”

But Liang, 19, has done more than just overcome a language barrier. As a part of what will be the first ever graduating class from Southern Lee's Academy of Engineering, Liang has a wealth of knowledge and experience with engineering that has already netted him acceptance to schools including Virginia Tech and Penn State. While he's still weighing offers, he's sure to capitalize on those opportunities.

“I love airplanes, so my career choice will be something related to airplanes,” he said, explaining that he plans to study aerospace engineering wherever he goes to college. “But right now I don't have a clear path, so I just want to explore.”

Jerry's passion for engineering has led him to an internship with Mertek Solutions, a Sanford-based company which designs and creates manufacturing machinery. Mertek's owner, Jerry Pedley, sits on the engineering academy's local advisory board.

“Jerry has been coming to see us for a long time. He's been coming to Manufacturing Day over the years, and so we know him and we're excited to have him on board,” said Pedley. “He's asked very intelligent questions and he's able to make designs using the assembly machines.”

Liang with droneLiang says the internship has been great in terms of helping him understand building. While he's built functional, remote-controlled model airplanes and even a drone, working on manufacturing machines is a different experience.

“You have to bring your idea about a specific type of machine, and you put your ideas into reality by designing it on the computer,” he said.

Pedley said Southern Lee's engineering academy is a huge asset to Lee County and its long list of manufacturers.

“They're training kids in high school with the engineering skills that are needed at companies like Static Control, Caterpillar, Moen, Magnetti Marelli, and a hundred others,” he said, explaining that even before the academy's inception, he was bringing interns from the high schools to get experience at Mertek. “I'm just excited about encouraging other businesses in this community to take advantage of the resources that are available to us through our high schools and our community college and our education system in general.”

Liang's activities aren't limited to just engineering. He's a member of the career and technical organization SkillsUSA, the school's Science Olympiad, the tennis and swimming teams, National Honor Society, National Technical Honor Society, and even the Southern Lee guitar club.

“I work (at Mertek) three or four days per week, usually about three hours per day,” he said. “Sometimes I have after school activities that conflict but I always put school first because that's what I'm focusing on.”

Jerry Liang with instructor Martin BryantMartin Bryant, the director of Southern Lee's engineering academy, said Liang is more than impressive for more than a few reasons.

“He's really come a long way in four years,” said Bryant, referencing Liang's adaptability to English. “His conversational English was good but he had trouble with some of the technological and engineering terms. He doesn't anymore.”

But Bryant stressed that Liang should be recognized for much more than just overcoming the language barrier.

“I mean, he started a remote-controlled model club here at Southern Lee because he wanted to share his experience with the other kids,” Bryant said. “He's been an inspiration and a model to a lot of the other kids, because he shows them what they can do when they put their mind to it.”

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