Graduate Connections – Meet Zac Darling

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Zac, 33, is from a town called Weedsport, 30 minutes west of Syracuse, in upstate New York. Zac graduated from the nine-month Electro-Mechanical Technologies program in the spring of 2022. A month later he started the Welding Specialist program. He graduated from the RSI welding program in January 2023.

Thanks for sharing your story, Zac. What did you do before you came to RSI?

After high school I went to college for four years. I majored in theater, and graduated from SUNY Brockport, a school close to Rochester, NY. After college I did a theater internship. I did all kinds of stuff there. Then I moved to Chicago. I lived there before about a year, then I joined the Army when I was 25 or 26. I was in the 82nd Airborne for five years. I got what I wanted out of it, and to be perfectly honest, after five years I needed to find a different way to live my life.

What was your military occupational specialty? Did it involve anything that you went to RSI for?

No, it was completely different. I was in a combat MOS. I was a cavalry scout, so I’d go behind enemy lines, observe, and send reports back. Sometimes things would get hairy.

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I don’t doubt it. Thank you for your service. Why did you choose HVAC school when you came out?

I’d already done the whole higher education route, and I’m the kind of person who hates being behind a desk. I didn’t want to do that. It would drive me absolutely crazy. I was thinking there must be something out there for me. I took a look at all the work that’s getting done in the trades. It seemed there is always a need for welders, for HVAC technicians. It seemed like a very good market to get into.


Did you move to Arizona for RSI, or were you here already?

I didn’t want to live up north anymore. I wanted to skip a few winters. I’m tired of snow, so Arizona sounded pretty good, and I’ve got a cousin who lives here. I thought, I can learn HVAC anywhere. I can learn how to weld anywhere! I moved to Arizona, stayed with my cousin, and I looked at RSI when I got here.

What were your first impressions of RSI?

When I took the tour, I could tell the faculty and staff care about their students. They want to see you succeed. I decided that if they’re going to treat me like this, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t go to this school. As soon as I started the EMT program, they give you every single tool you need to succeed in the field. It’s just whether you, as a student, want to stick it out and actually learn.

What made you do the welding program straight after? Were you trying to fill your tool belt with skills?

If you look at billboards around Phoenix, it’s not just HVAC that companies offer. They offer other trades too, like electrical or plumbing. I wanted to make myself more marketable to companies in Phoenix.

For example, I got hired on by a company called Kade Mechanical. I start next week. One of the reasons they hired me is because they also work specifically with restaurants where everything is stainless steel, because everything has to be clean. So, if they have a stainless-steel sink that’s come apart at the seam, I can weld that for them, as well as help take care of their walk-in refrigerator or their A/C.

I also thought learning how to weld would be really cool. It’s also an extremely marketable skill, and I like the idea of doing it as a hobby. I can do side jobs if I want. If someone needs me to build a deck, let’s check out the measurements and see what I can do. It seemed silly not to use my GI Bill and learn it.

What was the favorite part of your time at RSI? You already mentioned the faculty…

I’m glad you brought the faculty backup because that was a big thing. But I think it’s the culture there. And surprisingly, I include the students in that too. You’re surrounded by people who are willing to get their hands dirty. You don’t find that as much these days, people who are willing to do hard work and work hard, because some people just don’t want to work at all. Don’t get me wrong, there are students who came late, didn’t put the work in. But for the most part, you could tell that these are the kind of people who I wanted to be around. They care about what they’re going to do, and they want to change their lives. So, the students, the faculty, the culture—they were my favorite parts of the school.

Did you prefer the welding program or the HVAC program?

There are good points to both. I’d say I worked harder on the welding program. HVAC is more of a diagnosis-type problem, so you’re not getting your hands dirty as much, I guess. But all in all, I have to go with a tie because if you actually care, it’s impossible not to learn too much from either program. Picking one or the other, that’s hard!

Did you get frustrated?

Absolutely. It’s impossible not to; it’s like telling water not to be wet. You have days when, I don’t know, maybe you haven’t slept well or something like that. Or maybe you’re just not getting a problem in HVAC or in welding. You have to remember to continue to work through that frustration. Try to calm yourself down. I was always way too hard on myself because I’m a perfectionist. I want things to look good on the first try, but in welding, that’s not feasible when you’re starting out because you don’t know anything.

And that’s a big thing that I want to say to future students; just keep in mind that you’re learning, you’re a student and it’s okay to fail and mess up at school. That’s what school is for, to learn from your mistakes. That’s just something I had to keep in my mind – it’s okay to mess up because you are learning. Yes, you’re going to get frustrated, it’s going to happen, but you can’t let it get you down. You’ve just got to continue to push through and absorb as much as you can.

How did you connect with Kade Mechanical? Did Career Services help you?

Through one of the instructors at RSI. He sent my résumé, and we met for an interview. I know that Jessica in Career Services had already lined up all kinds of HVAC interviews for me after I finished the EMT program, but I was like, hold on. I want to go and do the welding stuff first! Jessica was more than helpful.

You’re about to start your first job in the field. Are you happy with the money you’re starting on?

I’d say so, yes. I’ve got a family member in the HVAC industry. He’s up in New York. I asked him what he started out on, and I’m getting paid more than he was when he started. Going through RSI and knowing how to weld definitely put me above a lot of the other people they interviewed. I’m also happy with the way that they’re going to bump my pay every few months, after reviews and stuff like that. I’m hoping I can buy a house in the next three or five years. That would be great.

What’s your career plan from here?

I could see myself being at Kade for at least two or three years. I think it’s going to take me at least a year to master what they do there. I could see myself having my own business years down the road, I mean, who doesn’t like the idea of being your own boss? I’d be more than happy to do that, but you’ve got to find the right people to do it with. You need to have a good team.

What do you enjoy most about your new trade?

I used to work in the restaurant industry when I lived in Chicago. It was probably 2014, and I remember the walk-in went down. Everyone in the kitchen treated the guy who fixed it like a king. If that refrigerator doesn’t get back up, all that food’s going to go bad. He was an absolute hero! I like the idea of going in and fixing problems for people. At Kade, they showed me a giant coil that’s for an industrial ice cream machine. So, I’m like, if the ice cream’s melting, I get to be the guy that’s here to save the day! I can save these 300 gallons of cookie dough ice cream. I don’t know why, but that thought came to me.

The cookie dough king! Did you make some lasting connections, people you’ll stay in touch with?

Easily. When it comes to veterans, there are other veterans there, so you immediately have a bond with them because you’ve been through the bad times. You both recognize that. But even people who aren’t vets, we’ve got our own group chats. We are still chit-chatting even now school’s over.

What advice do you have for new students thinking about coming to RSI?

Show up on time, do your homework, and don’t quit, because there will be plenty of times when you’re going to want to. But if you really want to make your life better, you need to be willing to work, and you need to be willing to work hard. If you aren’t willing to do any of those things, that means you’re not truly being a catalyst of change in your own life. You have to push through those hard times before your life can get better, and it’s 100% going to be worth it.

If you’re an RSI graduate and would like to share your success story and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your graduation date (month/year), and program.