Changing the World While Changing Diapers: A Couple’s Non-Traditional Path to Becoming Texas Engineers

August 13, 2020

To be an undergraduate student in the Cockrell School of Engineering means you are opening doors for your future as you pursue a degree that will help you impact society and change the world.

It also means that for the length of time it takes to complete said world-changing degree, you are BUSY.

Your schedule is saturated with heavy course loads and class schedules, tests and study groups. You spend your “free time” trying to coordinate extracurricular activities and land the pivotal internships that will lead you to your dream job. And, you juggle all of this while navigating the general life shift you experience as you transition straight from high school to college.

And Ru and Peter Schaefferkoetter (B.S. ChE 2013, B.S. ASE 2013) balanced these challenges while raising a toddler.

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The Schaefferkoetters met at an internet café in Kuwait where they were both stationed with the U.S. Army before deploying to serve in Iraq. Peter vividly remembers the moment he first saw his future bride, recalling how Ru walked into the café holding an IBM computer – the computers issued to soldiers who are interested in schooling while out in the field. After introducing himself and starting a conversation, they formed a friendship that gradually turned into a romance.

Following their deployment in Iraq, they moved to Killeen, Texas, where they were stationed at Fort Hood. Soon after, Ru discovered she was pregnant with their son Dillon and chose to pivot from her military career in order to have more flexibility to raise their family. She stayed in Killeen to care for their newborn for a year while Peter was deployed in Iraq.

It was during this deployment when Peter’s commander first suggested he explore UT Austin’s aerospace engineering program to pursue his dream of becoming an aerospace engineer. After Peter was accepted into the program, Ru decided to apply to UT, too, entering as a biochemistry major with the intention of becoming a pharmacist, but she later transferred to chemical engineering.

“It was a scary decision because we knew we would be going to college…together…with a kid. Not to mention, we didn’t really have any friends in Austin. We basically approached it one day at a time,” Ru said. “Those four years were a wild ride. Our son was barely two when we both entered the program. I don’t think we were fully prepared for the workload, challenge and dedication needed to be a successful college student. We had to juggle a lot between coursework and taking care of the baby. Everything we did and planned was very deliberate.”

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Despite the challenges, Ru and Peter stayed the course, tapping into the discipline and perseverance they honed during their time in the U.S. Army. They eventually carved their niche within the Texas Engineering student community as the “non-traditional” students who were a bit older and in a different stage of life, bringing their son along to study groups and extracurricular events.

“I realized being a parent and being a student didn’t have to be segregated,” Ru said. “Everybody has a unique place within their community, and once we fully stepped into our dual roles as both parents and students – without feeling guilt for either – we truly began to flourish.”

“It wasn’t all lollipops and roses,” Peter added with a smile. “But the trials and tribulations associated with school itself and our ability to navigate those strengthened our marriage. We are grateful for the good times and the incredible faculty who helped us along the way.”

Ru and Peter have carried that mindset of perseverance beyond graduation and into their successful careers in industry and post-graduate studies: Ru is currently a production engineer at BP while Peter is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, with a focus on computational materials, solid mechanics and fluid mechanics.

And Dillon, now 12 years old, has shown interest in following in his parents’ engineering footsteps.

While in college, the Schaefferkoetters promised each other if they could, they would one day establish a scholarship for couples like them who may be pursuing a degree while coming from non-traditional family backgrounds. And they did just that, establishing the Schaefferkoetter Family Endowment in 2015.

“I’m all too familiar with the amount of pressure and guilt [mothers and fathers] have to go through to pursue this dream but also be good parents,” Ru said. “My biggest advice is to not be too hard on yourself. Your kids will look up to you. These types of struggles make you a role model and will sometimes have much more of a positive impact in your kid’s life than you thought possible.”

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