Editor’s note: This essay is part of an occasional series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” in which writers share lessons from their experience with higher education.
I was one of the “uncool" kids at my Cary, North Carolina high school. My crowd was the frequent target of bullies and the butt of many jokes. I was a good student—and therefore I was often called a “geek” or a “nerd”—but I hated school and decided to skip out on going to college.
After I graduated in 1999, I decided to work full-time as a janitor at a Harris Teeter supermarket. At the time, it seemed like good money. I was living at home with virtually no expenses. As time went on, I thought to myself, “Ha! I don't need a college education. I've got it made!” Assuming that I could do whatever I wanted, I moved out of my parents’ house and ended up starting a family of my own. It wasn’t long before my rebellious behavior backfired on me. My meager pay as a janitor wasn't making ends meet, so I decided to get a job with a plumbing company.
People had been telling me that plumbing was one of the best fields for a person without an education to go into. In fact, I was told, a plumber's license could earn the equivalent of a four-year bachelor's degree. Plumbing was also something I was personally interested in. As a child, I had always wondered how things like toilets worked and how water was heated. I also wondered what happened to all the water once it went down the drain and how different pipes were put together. It was more interesting than computer science or engineering (two fields I had once considered in high school).
Over the next two years, I spent countless long days down in sewage ditches and crawling underneath houses fixing broken pipes. To my great dismay, I didn't earn the money I was hoping I would. After two years, I decided to help my father with his landscaping business: he needed the help and I needed more pay.
At first, we did not get along because we were at odds over the decisions I had made since high school. He had wanted me to go to college and make something more of myself, not spend my life doing what he had been doing.
As I entered my mid-twenties, I realized the error of my ways. But I was convinced that I had missed my chance to go to school. “It's too late,” I told myself. “I should have gone immediately after high school. There's no way I can do well in school now.” I became resigned to my fate.
Things changed in a surprising way. My sister graduated from N.C. State in 2006. At her graduation, my parents took photos of the two of us standing together. I looked at myself in those pictures and noticed how overweight I was. In those days, I weighed 275 pounds. Absolutely disgusted with the way I looked, I decided to come up with a plan to lose the weight. Within a year, I ended up losing 125 pounds.
It was then that I realized that if I put my mind to something I could accomplish whatever I wanted. At that moment, I told myself that if I was determined to get through school then I could do it. For the sake of my family, I knew I had to. By this time, I had three children, and taking care of them wasn't getting any cheaper. I had to do something.
I headed over to Wake Tech and applied for the two-year accounting program, since I didn't think I had what it took to make it through a four-year university. Before I could start, I had to take the placement test. Not expecting much, I walked into the office of one of the Wake Tech staff members to hear my results. The man behind the desk was absolutely amazed. He told me that I had "the highest score [he] had ever seen." He urged me not to just settle for the two-year accounting program but to go ahead and enroll in the associate in arts transfer program. At that point, I realized that my old self—the studious side of me that had existed back in high school—was still there.
Unlike some of the students starting off at Wake Tech who were barely out of their teens, I was fueled by a desire to escape the living conditions I had experienced since graduating from high school. To fail college, I thought, was to return to the sewage ditches or to work in landscaping forever. I had to do well in order to improve my life and that of my wife and three daughters. I wasn't some kid who could just move back in with his parents; there was no room for failure.
I have just finished my third semester at Wake Tech. Once again, I have gotten straight As and have been able to maintain my 4.0 GPA. Right now, I am planning to transfer into N.C. State and get a degree in accounting. Ultimately, I would like to become a CPA.
Interestingly, a lot of people have been suggesting that I get a career in teaching. I’ve already given a well-received 50-minute lecture on economics, and I spent a good deal of this past semester tutoring students in my College Algebra class. I helped one student pull his grade up from a 60 to an 82, and two others from Bs to As.
So, my plans may change. But right now, my greatest motivator is my family. Often, I'll hear other students complain when the teachers begin handing out tests, anticipating disappointing results. My thoughts are always different. I think of those three sets of eyes of my daughters looking up at me, depending on me to succeed. I know that every test I take and that every assignment I complete brings me one step closer to helping my family. And myself.