Jan. 23—Ron Eckman Jr. took off from New Kensington and 25 years later landed in Las Vegas.
Eckman, 48, enlisted in the Air Force after graduating from Valley High School in 1991. He was an aircraft electrician, working on fighter jets at bases around the world and even traveled with the heralded Thunderbirds aerobatic team.
After retiring from the Air Force in 2016, he settled in Vegas, where he has his own counseling practice and works in the Clark County School District.
Eckman is among more than 50 Valley High alumni who have volunteered to take part in a new career coaching program for students by speaking in person at schools or recording video messages that students can watch.
Eckman was working on a video.
"When I graduated I really was unsure what I wanted to do," he said. "I lacked focus and guidance in that area. The military allowed me to have some stability and learn life skills and to be able to help me figure out what I wanted to do later in life."
Dana Fularz, the federal programs liaison for the New Kensington-Arnold School District, is spearheading the effort to find alumni who today's students can look up to as role models from their hometown.
"I think a lot of our kids here, they only see what's around them," she said. "By bringing these alumni in, they get to see there's a whole big world out there they can explore. Our students really need to see that."
John Marzullo, a 2001 Valley graduate, lives in Oakmont and works as a real estate agent. He recently spoke in person to seniors and is scheduled to talk with juniors during classes Thursday.
"I felt nervous in the sense that I didn't know if they would care what I had to say or not. I was thinking back to when I was in school, if someone showed up and gave a presentation, would I have even cared?" he said. "The students were great. They were asking really good questions. They were really engaged. We were talking about some pretty dense subject matter."
After high school, Marzullo, 38, said he went to technical school and college, both "for a little while," but didn't earn a degree. He managed a retail store before becoming a real estate agent in 2013 and has had his own team for two years.
"You can be successful in a non-traditional path," he said. "I wasn't the best student. Sometimes it feels like if you're not good at traditional learning, you're not going to be good. I found out I do love learning when the content is something that I'm interested in and I'm excited about."
Maria Pallone, 26, a 2013 graduate, will be making a video about her life after Valley High, which included graduating from Westminster College with a degree in business administration in 2017 and then working for U.S. Steel.
"I hope to get across that there are options out there for them. You can pursue many things in your career, whether it be college or vocational programs," she said. "You have a lot of options. It's not cut-and-dry."
Pallone married Andrew Macura, a 2015 Valley graduate, in November, and they live in New Kensington. He is also doing a video about himself and his career working for the internal audit division of a bank.
"This is going to be a great program to really connect with the students and grow a group," Pallone said. "I hope it gives them an opportunity to see what they want to pursue."
From reaching out on the district's website and social media, Fularz said they've already heard back from graduates from the 1960s up to 2021. She hopes to find more alumni to participate and at some point start a one-on-one mentoring program and a district alumni association.
Fularz is a 1991 alumna.
"I want them to see anybody can do anything if they set their mind to it, including all of our students. These alumni are proof," she said. "I want them to see there's a whole range of possibilities. It doesn't matter where you are from. It matters where you are going."
Eckman remembers working part time at Fazio's in Arnold while he was in high school. He pondered joining the military and which branch was best for him.
"I'm proud to be from New Kensington. I loved growing up there," he said. "That is part of something I want to get across to the kids. Be proud of where you're from, but also know that there's other opportunities out there as well.
"If that path takes you away and out of your comfort zone and out of New Kensington, that's OK, too. Follow that path if that's what makes sense."
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .