The odds were certainly not in Luke McDonald’s favor.
McDonald—a recent game and simulation programming graduate—dropped out of his Ocala, Fla. high school during his freshman year, and although he earned his GED and eventually found himself a job, his future prospects weren’t looking great.
McDonald’s mother saw he was in a funk and one day encouraged him to make something more of himself and continue his education.
“I was pretty down because I felt like I wasn’t really doing much with my life,” McDonald says. “So my mom got me to take a trip and visit the campus.”
That day changed his life forever.
A challenging journey
McDonald originally started working his way toward an associate degree in graphic design at Rasmussen College’s Ocala, Fla., campus. He made steady progress with a few stumbles here and there, but as he neared completion of his degree, he decided to continue his education and pursue a bachelor’s degree in game and simulation programming.
This switch was risky.
McDonald was on the verge of failing out of his graphic design program and would be kicked out of school if he failed one more class. “Honestly, I thought about dropping out almost every day,” he says. “I was so tired and stressed out, but I stuck with it and was able to push through.”
The only thing that got him through was the promise he made to his mother. When she passed away, he felt obligated to finish what she helped start.
“I thought if I can’t do it for myself, then I needed to do it for the people that care about me like my mom,” says McDonald.
McDonald’s journey, though challenging, did have its positives. He says it was much easier learning subjects like math when it was applied to a subject in which he was interested. In fact, he even passed a physics course—something he couldn’t imagine doing before attending Rasmussen College.
McDonald credits his instructors, Barry Fawthrop and Bill Sattelmeyer in particular, for inspiring him and helping him push through a rough time in his life. Now, with a leadership position in his career, he says he appreciates how his instructors used to challenge him by placing him in lead roles for group projects.
“They must have seen something in me that I probably didn’t see at the time,” McDonald says.
McDonald is now the proud owner of a bachelor’s degree. It took him seven years to complete the journey, but now that he’s done it, the time he invested in his studies has paid off. He’s now a lead programmer at Ocala-based Seven Gun Games.
Opportunity leads to success
McDonald worked as an application developer for DS Media Labs while earning his bachelor’s degree, the opportunity was available in part due to the number of Rasmussen College graduates working there.
A highlight of his work there was the creation of a mobile app for the Oakley Airwave goggles, which feature a display in the goggles that can communicate with a mobile phone. McDonald says developing the app was rewarding and even gave him a chance to meet with executives at the Oakley headquarters in California.
“It was a great learning experience and I got to know some of the people I work with today who I truly care about,” says McDonald.
In addition to the hands-on programming he does at Seven Gun Games, McDonald manages a team of junior programmers. He also helped develop a mobile app featuring a “skee-ball” type game called Ramp Champ.
The biggest career challenge for McDonald now is the unknown. With programming, it’s very difficult to tell what issues or problems may come up from day to day, but McDonald says he’s “kind of addicted” to solving those problems, and that the payoff is worth it.
“Nothing’s better than seeing a smile on a kid’s face when they’re playing a game you created,” says McDonald.”
Big plans for his community
In the future, McDonald wants to find ways to pay back his success to his hometown by helping develop the budding programming industry there. His dream is to have Ocala, Fla. become a magnet for tech companies and programmers. McDonald believes that Ocala has the potential to be great and would love to found a company of his own someday in the future.
While turning Ocala into the Silicon Valley of game and simulation programming may be a long shot, if anyone has reason to believe it could happen, it is high school drop-out turned lead programmer Luke McDonald.
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