I’m in the process of filling out my schedule for what will be my final semester at Liberty University as an undergrad. I am graduating in May, 27 years and ten months after first arriving on campus as a 20 year old freshman.
I can hardly believe it’s happening. Since August 3rd, when I did my degree audit and realized I was entering my last two semesters I have been excited, overjoyed, hopeful, and ecstatic. I have shed tears of joy and relief probably a dozen times since that night at FedEx Office.
28 years is a long time to wait for something. It’s more than half my lifetime. It’s hard to comprehend.
But this morning as I was planning out my final semester, I got a little sad. It’s finished. I’m done. The focal point of my life for the past two years is concluding. Since the day in 2007 when I lost my home do to the mortgage crisis, to the day in 2008 when my branch was closed in a downsizing and I couldn’t renew my lease and I became homeless, right up to today, it has been my return to school that has been the lone consistent good thing. That day in August 2009 when I was sitting in the parking lot of Panera Bread Company and I hung up with my academic adviser and I looked at the schedule I had just scrawled on an envelope is when the journey resumed. 15 credit hours. New Testament Survey, History of Life (A Creation class) Survey of American History, Theology survey, Philosophy and Contemporary Ideas. I sat in my car and cried for about 5 minutes. I guess I had forgotten how much this all meant to me. I had always longed to return to LU and finish what I’d started, but life got in the way and I stored that desire in a file cabinet somewhere next to my dream of hoisting the Stanley Cup and owning a Corvette.
But that stifling hot August afternoon, the events of the previous 2 years coupled with the lifelong desire to graduate from college came bursting out in tears of joy. I’m sure that having recently lost everything I owned and everything that identified me as a dad and as a man added to the emotional response to my fall semester schedule. It was the first good thing that I could point to in over a year. Maybe this would be the first step on the road back.
Two years later and I am in the homestretch. I don’t know the date yet for graduation but I know I’ll be there. I have an idea what message I want to write on my mortarboard and I know who will be there when I walk. I know whose smiling faces I will look out on and who will be beaming at me in pride. The people who’ve loved me and who always believed I could do this. Momma Jewell, Bob and Cathy, and of course my precious daughter Morgan, for whom I endured all I have so that she would still and always have her daddy nearby. I will see friends who still live in Lynchburg and who are still involved in events on LU campus.
The image I have in my mind is different from the one that would have taken place had I graduated on time in 1988. The school is bigger; the campus is so different now that you’d hardly recognize it from the “old days”. The online program has exploded so much that LU has moved into the top ten ranking nationally for all schools, public and private.
The changes haven’t been immediately welcomed by us “old guard” alumni. We balked at the thoughts that our school was “going digital” and becoming an online school. As it turns out…it’s not. The growth of one does not mean the sacrifice of the other. In fact residency at LU is going to be stronger than ever.
I was going to write a long expose about the changes on campus. I even approached Chancellor Falwell about it and we’d talked a few times about the content of what I wanted to write. (I’d reached out to him in an effort to be factual and fair) But I decided today that none of that matters now. Most of the bluster about the changes going on at LU has died down. The alumni feel very comfortable about the direction of the school. There isn’t a point in writing about it anymore. So I decided to focus on what this degree means to me. How it represents something more than a 28 year pursuit of a dream and more than a nicely framed piece of paper.
What this degree gave me…especially the last 2 years finishing up at LU Online during the hardest, most difficult phase of my life…was pride. It gives me self respect. It gave me hope. Each semester was a chance to do the only thing I had any sort of control over. I couldn’t find a job, I was sleeping in my car, and I missed my daughter because I could only see her for a few hours at a time. I shivered in the dark of winter as I studied by flashlight in that aged Volvo 850. I got an A, a B and two C’s that first semester. More than that I got a boost. I achieved something in the midst of a string of failure. I learned about the Faith I have entrusted my soul to. I accomplished a deeper understanding of the Bible and the elements of the Church body I am a member of. In the 24 months since that first semester began, I have been homeless for about 20 of them. To be honest I was homeless for all of them. Having a “place to crash” isn’t a home. Not remotely. I put out over 300 resumes in that time and found one job…in Houston Texas. I built chicken coops and roofed a house and detailed cars and painted a friends porch. I wrote four books and four blogs and made nothing on any of them. I ate Ramen noodles in Panera and laughed about it when in reality it was humiliating and made me want to cry. And I did a lot of that too. Being a dad who used to have a home and used to have pets and used to have a workshop and used to go on vacations with his precious little girl and used to look in the mirror with a sense of pride, is a crushing weight. I cried a lot. I missed my daughter so much some nights that I cried myself to sleep. I hid the truth from her as best I could but she knew. Being in school at LU was the one thing I could show her that was consistent and was progressing. It was the one promise I was able to keep. It was the only source of pride in my otherwise humiliating world.
This degree means more to me than simply an educational achievement. It was how I showed the world that I was still alive over the last two years. It was the thing that set me apart from an otherwise utterly devastated man. It sustained me.
I am blinking back tears even as I write this. I am thinking about the things I have endured until today. The losses that heaped upon themselves and bent my back until I thought I would break. The tears and the sadness and the shame and embarrassment. Completing a degree is hard enough without doing it without a home. But I am almost done and it is a feeling I have heretofore not experienced.
The one face that will be missing on that Saturday next May will be Dr. Falwell. He would have loved this story. I think he would be as teary-eyed as I will be, had he been alive to hand me that diploma. Doc loved stories like mine. He loved people who refused to quit. He loved the God who gives the strength it takes to endure the seemingly endless defeats that found their demise on the road to my graduation. He spent his life proclaiming the truth that faith in the God he served could truly move mountains. And…as that campus proves…faith can build mountains too. My life proves this. That degree…my degree…proves it too.
The pursuit has been what kept me alive over these last two years. The degree represents something more than simply an education. The pursuit was a lifeline to me.
All of this is only coming true because the school I love is in able hands. The vision that Doc had in his heart from day one, back in 1971, is alive and vital and it’s probably expanded beyond what even that man of gigantic vision could have ever imagined.
Liberty University is doing just fine. In fact it’s better than ever. Liberty University is alive and well, and because of that, so am I.
And next May, one very appreciative member of the Class of 2012 will walk across that platform, receive that long overdue diploma, and stand taller than he has in a few years. My diploma will have cost exactly the same as those of all of my classmates.
But maybe nobody in that stadium that day will value theirs more.