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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Class of 2012...Thoughts on Graduating (at last) from LU. Snowflex, Online education...and why I am still a "Jerry's Kid"

In August of 1982 I arrived on the campus of what was then Liberty Baptist College. I was 19 years old and as lost as a man could be. I didn't know what I was doing or where I was going. But I knew I wanted to go to this fledgling school in central Virginia. I lasted three weeks before the lack of funds and the general blur of trying to figure out my life sent me packing. I withdrew and left, but not before I met one of the three or four best friends I would ever make...Jim Freeman.
Two Years later I returned and completed a full year. I loved that place. I met my other best friend that year, Greg St. Clair. I played on the very first hockey team we ever had that year and Jim and I had some amazing adventures...Mr. Olympia in November and Springsteen in January. I left in May, hoping to return for the following year but my home situation precluded that. That Christmas was when I found out about my dad and it sent me spinning like a tilt-a-whirl. From 1985 to 1994 I was a carpenter, a counter clerk in an HVAC supply shop, a very good hockey coach, and a lost soul. Through the ups and downs, maybe the one thing that ate at me the most was never finishing school. It broke my heart to be honest and I let it define me...the guy who didn't finish college. The one dream I couldn't make come true.
In 1994 I was blessed with the chance to return and I did. I went back to what had become Liberty University and played another year of hockey and loved every second. I transferred to another school the next year in order to get into their PA program. That was the year I lost my sister and came home to be near family. It was also the year I met my future wife. I had completed all but 18 hours of a pre med degree and had been accepted at Thomas Jefferson University School of Medicine. I got married that winter and by the following September we found out we were pregnant. I quit school after the spring semester and moved my unhappy wife to Nashville. I became a dad, a mortgage banker and then a divorcee all in about 2 1/2 years. I fought my way to prominence in my new career and bought my first house. Then my second house. I was basically in cruise control. Doing a job I didn't really care much for in a town that had one solitary good memory for me...the birth of my daughter...and hurting inside like nothing I could understand or believe. Under all the other unhappiness...divorce, homesickness for my native Philadelphia, lack of purpose and fulfillment...there was the gnawing issue of school. At every turn, every time I saw Doc Falwell on TV or went to LU for Homecoming or talked to my old school friends...I was regretting never finishing my degree from LU. I didn't want to graduate from any place else on earth.
In 2007 I lost my home as the mortgage industry collapsed. In 2008 I couldn't renew the lease on the rental house I lived in and I was homeless. The company I worked for reduced in size from 900 offices to 125 and I was one of the very unfortunate ones. By May 2008 I was homeless and spending my nights in my Volvo, hidden in the weeds behind a church in Nashville. I was more lost than I'd ever been. I had no family to turn to and no real friends in town. I don't remember ever being so alone and it was the most devastating time in my life. I lost my home, my career, the dreams my daughter and I dreamed together...even our family pets. I became a vagabond for the next three years. I lost everything I loved or held dear and I sank into a terrible place of desperation. I had no hope left.
In August of 2009 I talked to a friend who had gone back to school and who told me how much money she had been getting to do it. I looked into it and sure enough...I was eligible for grants and loans and so I decided this was the time for me to finish my degree and maybe improve my situation. I remember sitting in my car talking to an adviser at Liberty online and them enrolling me in 15 hours that first semester. When I hung up I broke into tears. I'd forgotten how much this meant to me and I was a Liberty student again. I had something to hope for and work towards for the first time in 18 months.
I was still homeless and completed that initial 15 hour semester while sleeping in that Volvo and studying in Panera Bread company or the public library and reading by dashboard light. I got  4 B's and a C. Since then I have lived in a friends basement, in a 10x12 office sleeping on an air mattress and my car again. There is little work in Nashville and I have alternately built chicken coops, detailed cars, done construction, roofed a house and aerated lawns. It has been as difficult as anything I ever tried to achieve. I changed to a Religion major so I had to surrender about a years worth of work that just didn't count towards my major in any real fashion. So I slugged it out for the last two years and last Wednesday night, at Fedex Kinkos I was sitting there finishing up my summer semester work and I decided to do a Degree Completion Audit.
The results...I have 100 credits, I need 20 more to graduate and I am taking 24 between now and May. I did it. I am going to walk across that stage in May and finish what I started 28 years before. I had to dash out the door because I didn't want the people in Fedex to see me crying. It was all I could do not to break into sobs. Even now...a week later...I got tears just seeing those words on my screen; "I will graduate in May". Besides the length of time it took, the lone regret I have will surely be that my beloved Doc Falwell won't be handing me my diploma. Doc is why I chose Liberty. I loved that man. His faith is why there is a Liberty Mountain. He used to come watch us play hockey and cheered loudest at our fights. He was a funny, cantankerous, godly, heroic man and I wanted to look him in the eye when I got that paper and tell him "thanks"...and probably "I love you Doc".
I'll be getting the diploma from his sons so that's not too bad a deal either. I'm so happy I stuck it out and I'm so happy I went back to where I started instead of just finishing at some local college. There is only one LU and I will really be an alumnus now.
In the week that has passed, I have become a palpably different man. This has been the first good news I have received since my life began to tumble 4 years ago. I needed this success and it came at exactly the right most things God engineers will do. I am truly happy for the first time maybe since arriving in Nashville. Hope deferred truly does make the heart sick, and my heart has been on life support for years now.
But that changed with just the click of a mouse. Just something as simple as some real. good old fashioned hope. Some real tangible success I could look at and point to and say " can do it!"
I feel ten feet tall right now...and I think Doc, while he was proud of every one of his "kids" who crossed that platform, would be particularly proud of what it took for me to get this diploma. Doc used to tell us about 1000 times a semester "You measure a man not by what it takes to knock him down...but by what it takes to keep him down." Thanks Doc...I understand now.

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