In the service, Cerbando had learned HVAC to work on the systems that purify salt water from the ocean and turn it into steam to power large military ships. Over time, he gained combat experience and was deployed with special operations teams as their mechanical engineer. He spent 14 years in the navy and was deployed several times to Iraq before he was forced into retirement because of PTSD.
“There were goals I had set for myself that I wanted to accomplish,” he said. “I didn’t get the chance to obtain the next rank. I didn’t get to have a normal retirement ceremony. I didn’t get to accomplish the 20-year-plus milestone I wanted to. When I think about it, it’s depressing.”
Cerbando is not the type of person to let one setback get him down. He decided to take his GI Bill benefits and attend college to translate his military training into civilian training.
“I didn’t do 14 years of HVAC, but I did some of it and I know it’s a good trade,” he said. “I wanted to utilize the GI Bill and learn more about air conditioning and refrigeration systems that I could use as a civilian. I worked with a bunch of commercial and industrial-sized equipment on ships, and I felt like going to school would help me learn more about the residential or smaller units versus the big systems on ships.”
Cerbando planned to sit quietly in the back of the class and pass through the program with ease but as he watched his fellow classmates struggle with the new material, he knew he couldn’t stay quiet.
“When I was in the service and went to school the first few weeks it was nothing but grammar, books and identifying the components and definitions,” he said. “It was a classroom setting with a Powerpoint. But here at UEI, on day one, we were in lab doing stuff. Me being a prior student years ago, I remember the feeling of what did I just get myself into? I saw the same expression on my classmates’ faces. I knew how lost they were. I knew what was going on, I understood, but they didn’t. The next couple of days as the instructors are asking questions, I would ask questions.”
Cerbando began asking his instructors to explain the material in different ways, to help his classmates who didn’t know what questions to ask. Eventually, he let his instructors in on his secret.
“Eventually I told the instructor I’m already certified,” he said. “I wanted to sit back and skate through the program in nine months but it’s not in me to sit back here and watch guys look confused. I wanted to be able to help them learn it in a different way. The instructors know it one way, I may have learned it a different way. If you can combine both it may be easier to comprehend. At the end of the day, we get the same thing done. That’s just being a good leader.”
“He was the perfect student,” said Justin Debondt, Cerbando’s instructor. “He was there every day. He did his work. He was willing to ask questions. For me as an instructor, that’s the number one thing I tell my students. The only way for me to teach you is if you ask questions. That’s one thing he did a lot. He asked a lot of great questions and he was a true leader in the classroom. By the end he was helping out and helping other students and making them better.”
Even though he had military HVAC experience, Cerbando said he still learned new things every day at UEI, and it prepared him to get a job in the field as soon as he graduated.
“He had a lot of naval ship experience but not a lot of civilian air conditioning stuff, but he grabbed on to it, he was willing to learn every day,” Mr. Debondt said. “I always tell my students the guy who knows the most, makes the most. I always held that carrot over his head and he’s doing it now.”
As the graduation ceremony neared, Cerbando was named the program’s valedictorian. He initially told the school to give the honor to someone else—but he decided that he wanted his wife and children to see him be recognized at the ceremony.
“A quote I liked was ‘Don’t be upset for the results you got from the work you did not do,’” he said. “When I heard that I thought that’s absolutely right. Don’t be upset with the results you got because you didn’t put the work in to get better at it. If you’re coming to class and waiting for the instructors to do their part, they get paid if they teach you or not. It’s up to you to bug them. I was doing that all the time because I wanted to learn more.”