Even as a toddler, Malique Qualls had a passion for trains. “I grew up in New York City, the heart of one of the biggest subway systems in the world. I had direct views of Amtrak from my window, and when I was young, it was my dream to be a train operator.”
His enthusiasm for rail transit led him to enroll in Transit Tech High School in Brooklyn. One of the most successful career and technical education schools in the city, Transit Tech gives students the skills needed for entry-level employment with industries such as New York City Transit Authority, Long Island Railroad, and Amtrak. It also motivates them to pursue college and other professional careers.
“This school attracts kids who really are into trains. There's no other way to say it—they're train-happy,” says Transit Tech principal Marlon Bynum. “Malique was one of those kids who was a part of that euphoria around trains and had a real passion for them.”
While at Transit Tech, Qualls was able to work toward his childhood goal of becoming a train operator and expand on his interest in trains. The school offers externships, internships, and apprenticeships with the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Qualls spent two years as an intern with the MTA, where he learned aspects of the transit corporation beyond the technical, from office etiquette to networking.
As he neared graduation, Qualls had a shift in ambition. “I decided to think a little bigger. Why just drive trains? Why not design and build them?”
While attending a college fair, he noticed Penn State Altoona’s Rail Transportation Engineering (RTE) program display which promised training in civil infrastructure, operations, design and maintenance, and business fundamentals, among other skills. It was exactly what Qualls was looking for.
He and his family celebrated when he was accepted to Penn State Altoona, the first student from Transit Tech to enroll in the RTE program. Bynum, too, was pleased for his student. “I was just so thrilled that he had the opportunity to be there because of what he would be exposed to and what he would learn.”
It’s not a surprise that coming to Altoona was a culture shock for Qualls: New York City, a humming, vibrant hub of activity and diversity; Penn State Altoona, a predominately white college in a predominately white rural area.
But Qualls jumped right in and quickly found himself immersed in math, chemistry, mechanics, and increasingly intense engineering courses. He got involved in the college’s chapter of the American Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA). This student-run group offers seminars, speakers, field trips, and an annual conference. He served as secretary for the organization and was later offered the position of vice president. He became one of the first representatives of Penn State Altoona’s RTE Ambassadors program, which aims to increase the visibility of RTE within high schools across the nation.
He also became a resident assistant in his residence hall. “Those things all helped me go from being shy and introverted to opening up and being more comfortable speaking to groups of people. It was really transformative for me.”
Those developing skills were put to good use when Bryan Schlake, assistant teaching professor of rail transportation engineering, suggested Qualls share his Penn State Altoona experience with students visiting from Transit Tech.
Schlake and Bynum had been cultivating a relationship since Qualls’ acceptance to Penn State Altoona, each recognizing the mutual benefits. “It just makes sense to work together. They are a niche high school with a focus on rail transit, and we offer the nation's first and only bachelor of science degree program in RTE. There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this partnership.”
Schlake and Bynam arranged for a group of Transit Tech students to visit Penn State Altoona, tour the RTE labs, and learn about the program. They both thought it would be impactful for those students to hear from Qualls, one of their own.
Bynum says he was in awe of Qualls as he heard him speak. “He was so mature, and he was really able to communicate his passion for trains, because I saw my students totally locked into what he was saying. It was a great way to get these kids thinking about going on to higher education.”
“I was eager to share my story because I realized I could be an influence,” states Qualls. “I could inspire kids to go after their dreams no matter where they come from. That was a very humbling moment for me.”
Qualls was well into a rhythm of classes, coursework, and college life when financial issues forced him to take a year off and return home. “It was incredibly hard to be in the process of reaching my goals and have that come to a halt.” Yet he says that pause allowed him to regroup and prepare himself to return to Penn State Altoona even stronger.
Then another obstacle. Just as he was able to re-enroll, COVID-19 was raging around the globe. Instead of going back to campus as a student, Qualls found himself staying in New York and taking classes virtually—an additional adjustment.
But returning to Altoona for the start of the 2021-22 academic year was what hit Qualls the hardest. “That's when it impacted me the most. I had just been home for two years. I was used to having access to everything and being able to go anywhere. Then I was stuck on campus. I had no car. All of my friends already graduated. So, I was basically starting all over again like my freshman year.”
He wasn’t about to give up, though. Nothing was going to stop him from getting that degree. “Those obstacles that came in my way in such a short amount of time just made me stronger and more independent. They just made me more determined.”
Now, just a few months from graduation, Qualls is confident in his future.
Classes in signaling, tracks, maintenance, operations, locomotive mechanics and components, and construction management have prepared him. So did an internship at Hitachi Rail, hands-on work surveying and installing track maintenance devices, and a capstone project where Qualls and other classmates reconfigured a rail yard and constructed a facility building for it.
He says the RTE program is perfect for anybody interested in railroads, trains, and the industry in general. Qualls understands that everything he’s learned is universal and can be applied to any type of rail system, especially when it comes to track capacity, signaling, rules, and regulations. “These are all tangible skills and knowledge that I’ll use in my career. It’s hard to believe that someone coming into the rail industry who didn’t go through this program would have as much experience as I do.”
Qualls has already accepted a position with IKOS, a consulting firm specializing in the railway sector. He will begin the job immediately after graduation in May. He’s considering going on to graduate school to study urban planning. By living in New York City, he says that he's witnessed millions of people who use rail transit, but he’s seen just as many living in areas that don’t have access to convenient, reliable rail options.
“I want to advocate equal rights for all commuters and better public transportation options, especially in underserved communities. I hope to collaborate with community leaders to improve transportation in transit-deserted areas, not only in New York City and nationally but globally. I’m not dreaming too big.”
Qualls also looks forward to returning to Transit Tech in the future to speak with students about his college and career paths and encourage them to consider Penn State Altoona’s RTE program. As a result of the partnership between the two schools, three additional students from Transit Tech enrolled in the program last year.
Both Schlake and Bynum hold Qualls up as an example of a student who works hard, meets goals, and finds success.
“Malique is someone who has not given up on his goal of a college degree and a career in the railroad industry,” states Bynum. “To see him work hard and fight for that has been really inspiring to me and many of our students.”
“As an instructor and adviser, I’ve been cheering him on,” adds Schlake. “It's just very cool to watch him finish strong.”