Senior Profile/Triple Talent: Andrew, Corey, and Stephen Churilla Excel in Engineering, With Some Help from Healthy Sibling Competition

Issue Date: 
May 1, 2011
From left: Stephen, Corey, and Andrew ChurillaFrom left: Stephen, Corey, and Andrew Churilla

“What program do you use?” Stephen Churilla asks, interrupting his brother Andrew, who was discussing his new job creating three-dimensional, virtual models as an engineer at Richardson Cooling Packages in New Castle, Pa.

“MATLAB,” Andrew replies unsuspectingly.

“MATLAB is the poor man’s C++,” Stephen says with a smirk.

“Well, not really…,” Andrew begins, leading the two into a five-minute digression on the merits of various engineering software. Their brother Corey is eventually drawn in, too, never one to forgo a debate with his brothers.

Of the 611 young engineers receiving their degrees from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering today, Andrew, Corey, and Stephen Churilla must defy some kind of odds—they are triplets, and all three have distinguished themselves academically in a difficult field. Corey and Andrew graduated magna cum laude and cum laude, respectively, finishing their coursework in August 2010, earning bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and materials science. Stephen finished his coursework for a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in December 2010 with as much distinction, but missed magna cum laude by a mere two credits. Andrew and Corey plan to pursue their master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at Pitt.

But forget about odds. That exchange about engineering software programs during a recent mid-evening meet-up in the lobby of Pitt’s Benedum Hall exhibited the true components of their academic success: A genuine proclivity for engineering blended with competitiveness—born of the need to stand apart from the two people on the planet most like the other—that has provided as much support as it has motivation.

Both elements began early. “As kids, we would build things from LEGOs and then argue about whose was better,” said Corey, who is finishing an internship with Thar Geothermal, LLC, a Pittsburgh-based alternative energy company, before he starts his graduate studies.

Their mild rivalry resulted from their being treated as three variations of the same person, from identical outfits in childhood family portraits to academic expectations. “When we were in school, it was always, ‘Your brothers are doing well, why aren’t you?’ I’d suck it up and say, ‘Good for them,’ but in my heart I hated it,” Corey said with feigned drama.

Each brother’s reaction to this dynamic is in keeping with his personality. Corey confronts annoyances with dismissive sarcasm and a touch of self-deprecation—in high school he was “the dumb one,” with a 3.69 GPA. Stephen prefers an open disdain that is particularly biting with his cool enunciation: “Our entire lives people have treated us as one thing. Some twins and triplets are like that, but those are people who don’t care about being an individual…”

“Calm down, it’s okay,” jokes Andrew, the mild-mannered complement to his brothers’ flares of intensity. While a spirited competitor, Andrew approaches the fraternal contest amicably. Because he’s hearing impaired, Andrew is superficially different from his brothers. He contended with the impairment throughout his life—in middle school, he made a deal with his hearing-support teacher that if he got straight A’s, he could ditch a cumbersome hearing device that entailed a wireless transmitter he wore and a microphone his teachers had to wear. He achieved the high grades and rid himself of the device once he showed he could still be an accomplished student without it.

In turn, said Stephen, Andrew’s flawless grades prompted him to achieve the same shortly after. “We strive to be better or equal because we’re compared to each other, but it has always been a motivator, too,” he said.

Corey agreed. “I guarantee that if I had gone to another university, I would not have studied and worked as hard as I did at Pitt,” he said. “I would not have had the drive.”

At the same time, their common pursuit comforts them—whenever one has a difficult time, he knows the other two can relate and help.

The brothers came to Pitt via the 3-2 Engineering Program offered by Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. Students begin as majors in mathematics at Saint Vincent and then, after three years, transfer to an engineering program at Pitt, Penn State, or the Catholic University of America for two more years. After five years, students receive a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Saint Vincent and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from their chosen institution.

Andrew, Corey, and Stephen all received their mathematics degrees from Saint Vincent in 2010. At one point, though, Andrew had doubted his future in engineering during a troublesome bout with electromagnetism in his Physics II course.

“I felt that I would not do well in engineering if I did not pass,” he said. “I actually considered switching to just a math major, but I stuck with engineering on my brothers’ advice, and they helped me through the class. Without their support and help, I don’t think I would have fared as well.”

All three brothers needed and provided that support at some point, Stephen said. In the end, they wanted to be engineers, and it was challenging. Now an engineer at Bechtel Plant Machinery, Inc., in Monroeville, Pa.—which undertakes classified projects for the U.S. Navy and required a three-month background check—Stephen knows the drudgery was worth it. He sometimes returns to Saint Vincent to talk with aspiring engineers and mathematicians in the class of the brothers’ favorite mathematics professor, Michael Botsko Jr.

“Everything I’ve done, I’m glad I did it. Even the classes that I thought were awful were an experience,” Stephen said. “I remember taking Dr. Botsko’s linear algebra class and wondering when any of it comes into play. When I got to Pitt, I took a class in linear circuits that made sense to me when it didn’t to a lot of other students because of that class. You never know. Now, I have a job that when people ask me what I do, I get to say, ‘I’m sorry, that’s classified.’ It makes life so much more interesting.”

“But I probably do more engineering than you do,” Corey said, smiling.

“We like to talk over each other,” Stephen explained. Andrew began, “Like how you cut me off earlier when…”

“Yeah,” Stephen cut in, “like that.”