My Long Journey To A College Degree

Most of my Prep classmates headed to college after graduation. Not me. I had other plans.

I was almost 51-years-old, a grandfather, when I graduated from Drexel University with a B.S. in Communications & Applied Technology. Most of my St. Joseph’s Prep classmates were college-bound right after graduation in 1971. Not me. I had other plans. I wanted to plunge into the working world, make my own way, and set the world on fire. I was bold, brash, and supremely confident. The only thing holding me back was that I had no idea as to what I wanted to do, exactly.

On top of that, I was engaged to be married the following year. So, I had to come up with something pretty fast. I needed a marketable skill that I could develop quickly. Looking through the newspaper one day I saw an ad for a local trade school offering a one-year course in Data Processing. That sounded impressive, so I paid them a visit to investigate further.

You’re really showing your age if you know anything about key punch. That was the main component of the course, Data Processing Machine Repair. A precursor to computers, key punch cards had holes punched through them, and they were used for data and program entry. So, they were technically processing data. My parents co-signed my loan for $900, and I enrolled.

Despite my confidence and optimism, I was young and naive. I didn’t do much research into the market for key punch technicians. The cards were still in use through the 1970s, but were quickly becoming obsolete by the availability of computer terminals. Interestingly, in another classroom at the school a small group of students were learning how to program computers. I was in the wrong room!

After completing the course I couldn’t find a key punch job anywhere. It wasn’t a total disaster, however. We delved into electron theory – ohms, amps, and volts – and I learned how to solder, and use test instruments. Armed with that knowledge I landed my first full-time job repairing dictating and transcription machines in September, 1972. Three weeks before my wedding. I was saved!

In the years that followed I had a wide array of jobs, and some business ventures. While my high school friends were pursuing degrees I was a homeowner, a husband, and a father. I always had a couple of jobs going on. I was hard driving, and ambitious. I did OK for myself back then.

For a long time I didn’t think about college. I was too busy earning a living, sometimes just doing my best to survive. Even if I did have the time to go the tuition was well beyond my means. But, I had a thirst for knowledge. I did a lot of reading, and took some home study courses. I was also fortunate to have experienced, successful mentors at some of my jobs. They not only helped me to navigate treacherous corporate waters, but also imparted valuable lessons about life, and people.

Still, I felt like something was missing. I looked forward to high school reunions so I could reminisce with my buddies about the good old days. Some of them became successful doctors, lawyers, and prosperous business owners. Others became FBI agents with law and accounting degrees. I was the odd man out because I didn’t go to college. But, I was happy with my life, and what I accomplished without a degree. I was the first in my entire graduating class to get married, become a father, and buy a house, all within the space of two years. My classmates liked me for who I was as a person, not for the jobs I had.

Things changed in 1991. That was the year my daughter enrolled at Peirce Junior College, which was later renamed Peirce College. While she was there I learned that the school offered substantial tuition discounts to family members of current students. This was around the time that personal computers were becoming more affordable, and growing strongly in popularity. So, I signed up for computer, software, and financial classes a couple of nights a week.

There I was, sitting in a classroom at almost 40-years-old with kids half my age. It was a revelation! I wasn’t a great student in high school. I put forth just enough effort to get by, unless it was a course that I really enjoyed. I was there because I had to be there. But, this time, I was there by choice. I immersed myself fully into the experience. My grades, and classroom participation, were phenomenal.

The seed was planted. I lusted after a college degree. Not just for the knowledge and the diploma, but also because I would be the first Guariglia to graduate from a four-year college. My daughter was the first to go to college, but she attended for two years. I had a chance to make family history!

Drexel Graduation Day with my grandson Zack

A few years later, in 1997, I started working at Bell Atlantic, which soon became Verizon Communications. It was an entry level outside craft job, the bottom rung of the ladder. I wouldn’t be there for long. The company had a very generous tuition reimbursement plan. The next year, I enrolled at Peirce College to pursue an Associate degree in Business Administration. That took two years. When I was done I immediately enrolled at Drexel University for another four years. In 1999, I entered the ranks of management as Team Leader, and advanced to Service Manager for large business accounts.

It took six years of evening classes to receive my two degrees. Both schools sent professors to Verizon premises where conference rooms became classrooms. There were no online courses. Classes were held on our own personal time, after long, hard workdays. It was physically and mentally demanding. I didn’t get home until late in the evening. More than 40 of us started in 1998. 13 graduated in 2004. I not only persisted, I also excelled, and received a Magna cum Laude honor. The dream finally came true.

The poet, Robert Browning, wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” In the end, it wasn’t the prestige of a degree nor the impressive diploma that were important. It was the journey, the discipline, and the teamwork that all contributed to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and the achievement of a lofty goal.

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