When David Parks came back to Virginia Tech 18 years after he first enrolled, he knew he’d be the “old guy” in his classes. He wasn’t moving back to Blacksburg to finish up his first degree – he already had that.

Parks was coming back to start a new degree from scratch, Computational Modeling and Data Analytics. He’d be a first-year. A 35-year-old first-year student, but he was much more worried about the courses themselves than what anyone thought of his age.

“If I am being honest, I was absolutely terrified of the coding classes,” Parks said, “because I had never written a line of code.”

“If you remember nothing else I say today, remember these two words: Be relevant,” Parks recalled. “And he was correct. I remember nothing else of what he said, but I remember those two words, be relevant.”

So he found it amusing more than anything when, about halfway through the first semester, some of the traditional undergraduates came up and asked his age. It turns out, they’d been placing bets on how old he was. Parks was game.

“Before I tell you, at least let me know what your wagers are,” Parks told his colleagues. “So actually, they had done an over/under that I was either older or younger than 28.”

He barely had chance to be flattered. “When I told them I was 35, they were shocked.”

Parks graduated Virginia Tech in 2003, with a degree in political science. He later enlisted in the Navy as an intelligence specialist, deployed to Iraq, served in Naples, Italy, commissioned into the Navy Reserves as an intelligence officer, re-enrolled at Tech, and this month will graduate with a double major in CMDA and economics.

In CMDA – an intensive course that combines statistics, mathematics, and computer science – Parks will graduate with a 3.9 GPA. He was a recipient of the Luther and Alice Hamlett Scholarship in the College of Science.

“That blows my mind, to end up earning an academic scholarship for a guy who barely made it out of undergrad the first time,” he said, “after changing majors and wanting to be a professional wrestler.”

Parks spent much of his spare time during this first go-around at Virginia Tech at McComas Hall, building up his strength. Immediately after graduation, he signed a contract with Ohio Valley Wrestling, competing under the wrestling name “D-Day.”

Parks in his Naval Officer commissioning uniform with the American flag in the background.
Parks commissioning photo (2013) taken at the Officer Training Command in Newport, RI. Photo courtesy of David Parks.

After about five months, it was clear he didn’t have a career as a pro wrestler, and he went on to be a manager at 84 Lumber. He enlisted in the military in 2006 as an intelligence analyst, doing imagery analysis, forensic analysis, and counterterrorism.

As a forensic analyst in Iraq, Parks and the others in his Weapons Intelligence Unit dubbed themselves “CSI: Iraq.” They had the job of finding evidence after a deadly explosion. One particular scene sticks with him to this day.

It was late in the day, because in the dark, with a flashlight is the best way to find the evidence they are trying to find. A soldier had died in this particular blast, on Feb. 13.

“It kind of hits you,” he said, “tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, so on Valentine’s Day somewhere in the United States, a family is going to be notified that their loved one was lost in service to their country."

As horrendous as that was, it wasn’t what prompted Parks to go back to college. He saw that the kind of work he did was changing, because of the tasks being increasingly driven by technology.

Parks had been taught to do imagery analysis by hand. He looked at satellite photos, zoomed in on different areas, and tried to identify tanks, ships, and missile sites. Counterterrorism work was like the FBI in a mafia movie: drawing lines from one suspect to the next to determine connections.

Then, as Parks watched, along came software programs that could do object recognition, wiping out the need for manual imagery analysis like Parks did. Along came other software programs, built by data scientists, that could do almost everything Parks had been trained to do by hand.

He thought back to the commencement speaker at his high school graduation on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. An NBC-affiliate broadcaster named Don Roberts had spoken.

“If you remember nothing else I say today, remember these two words: Be relevant,” Parks recalled. “And he was correct. I remember nothing else of what he said, but I remember those two words, be relevant."

Parks smiles at camera wearing a Virginia Tech beanie and winter coat.
Parks sports a Virginia Tech beanie while visiting the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory. Photo courtesy of Adriane Keller.

Parks saw that he was headed for irrelevancy. His wife and he discussed it. He wanted a data science degree. He found out about the CMDA degree, and started calling Virginia Tech to see what he needed to do. He was delighted to find out that since he had graduated from Tech, all he had to do was re-enroll.

His wife, Adriane, who he’d met at Virginia Tech, and he sold their house in Maryland, resigned from their jobs, and moved to Blacksburg in August 2017. Adriane was hired at Virginia Tech as web engagement manager in the Provost’s communications office.

After three years, the risk has paid off. Not only will David graduate with a CMDA degree, but an economics degree. Late next year, he plans to continue his education at Marquette University in a master’s program in sports and exercise analytics.

He understands he hasn’t taken a traditional path, and that it would be intimidating for many. And he’s noticed that some people won’t take a risk like that, until something negative like a job loss forces their hand.

So in addition to “be relevant,” David would add a second bit of advice, based on his experience.

“Never be afraid to invest in yourself,” he said, “it’s the only risk worth taking."