Each year in early October I tease my wife, Angela, about visiting our alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, for its homecoming celebration. I’m not serious about attending the festivities, I’m too old and too much of a homebody to deal with a long drive and a weekend with drunk college kids. The annual event does give me reason to pause and reflect on the journey I took to get there.
I tend split my life into several stages, and my college experience had a most profound affect on me. I’m certainly not unique in that way, but I do think my story is unique.
My origin story is, in many ways, a typical rust-belt story. My upbringing gave me grit, determination and a work-ethic I wouldn’t trade for anything. Unfortunately, what it didn’t prepare me for was how to navigate life in a foreign land.
College was that foreign land. The first I had ever visited.
My father was a steelworker, he never went to college – I’m not even certain he graduated high school. His father was an immigrant, his mother was illiterate. None of his siblings or immediate family members attended college.
He always wanted a better life for me, which included college, but I’m not sure he ever believed it possible. To him it probably felt like a goal as distant as another planet.
Despite working in a sewing factory when she was young, my mother listed her occupation as ‘housewife’ and never attended college. While both of her brothers graduated college, we were never close to that side of the family, so their influence on me was limited.
No, it was my father’s family that had the most influence on my youth. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, I have many fond memories of that time. But it did leave an undeniable impression and point of view. To that point, a former CEO I worked with told me to “stop acting like an immigrant who doesn’t deserve to be here.”
Those first few days of college were some of strangest days I can recall. I don’t remember specific events, but I remember having the feeling that I didn’t belong. It’s not like Edinboro is some exclusive university that requires more than a pulse to attend, but it still felt as though I didn’t earn a seat at the table.
I was surrounded by people who were better than me in every way. They were smarter, better educated, had a better upbringing – you name it, they had it. The only advantages I had were grit and a complete lack of fear.
I showed up that first day with no clue what to do, no financial aid (or understanding of how it worked), no friends, no acquaintances, no money, and minimal food and supplies.
Still, I have no memories of being fearful or worried that I wouldn’t make it. I’ve never lacked of confidence.
Even after I landed myself on academic probation after my first semester, I knew I would figure it out. Not figuring it out was not an option. I was raised to believe that a college degree was the first step in the American Dream. So a college degree was my goal.
That first semester set me back, and I ended up on the five-year plan. And while it resulted in more student loan debt, I did finish, and left with that degree.
More importantly, if not for my own failures during that first semester, I would not have been at The Hotel on October 28, 2000. It was on that date that I met the woman who would change my life forever, Angela.
For the record, Angela and I did go back on one occasion, a year or two after we graduated, but I’m not even sure if that was for homecoming, or just to visit friends.