'The Best and Worst of Both Worlds'
Full Ride to College Offers a Laid-Off Family Man The Opportunity, and the Challenge, of His Life

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Two final exams down, three to go, and Bucknell sophomore Dan Tichinel put a piece of metal into the strain gauge, the machine that forces pressure to the breaking point. "You tighten this up and tighten this up," he said. "And then you run the tests until failure."

Three exams to go. He pulled on his 30-pound backpack, and instead of going to the library, he walked to the only dorm room on campus decorated with crayon drawings and a page from a Barney coloring book, and loaded his pickup truck for the four-hour drive home to his wife and four small children.

At 30, Tichinel left his carpentry job and his family behind in the mountains of Western Maryland for the promise of a better future: a full scholarship to study engineering at Bucknell, a prestigious private university in Lewisburg, Pa., that is luring community college students. It's at once the greatest opportunity he's ever had and the hardest thing he's ever had to do. And all this year, he's been wondering how much stress he can take before he snaps.

Every Sunday, his 2-year-old son cries when Tichinel leaves for Bucknell; every Monday he panics about how much homework he didn't do over the weekend.

He's a rarity on this campus full of young, preppy students -- and a sign of things to come.

Community college students were once largely ignored by research universities. A few decades ago, most wouldn't have been smart enough, or driven enough, to succeed at a highly selective university, said Joshua Wyner, executive vice president of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which is helping people such as Tichinel. But far more students are at two-year colleges now -- there are about 6 million degree-seeking students nationally, almost half of all undergraduates -- and enrollment is growing more rapidly than at four-year schools. With tuition climbing at most universities, the gulf in costs keeps widening.

"If we want to close the gap between rich and poor in this country, we have to find all the talent we can in all the places it exists and develop that talent," Wyner said. "And it's important because our most selective higher education institutions need to be more diverse."

The public universities in Maryland and Virginia now essentially guarantee admission for in-state students who meet certain requirements, such as getting good grades at two-year colleges. And some elite private schools actively recruit; the Cooke Foundation works with eight universities, including Bucknell, to encourage transfers. Recent studies show that such transfer students do as well as, if not better than, students who started freshman year.

That doesn't mean it's easy.

Looking for an Opportunity

Dan Tichinel grew up in Garrett County, a place with fences stretching along empty fields, trailers tucked into the woods and mountains rising behind red barns. His family settled there generations ago, people who worked hard in the coal mines but stayed poor.

He liked school, took the hardest classes and thought he might like to go to college and become a petroleum engineer. But people told him, well, you have to be real smart to do that, Dan. Besides, there was no money for college.

So he learned carpentry and worked construction, earning $8 or $9 an hour helping build vacation homes by the lake for wealthy people from other places.

Then, in 2003, he got laid off. And he looked at the engineers and the other bosses on site, and noticed that they never lost their jobs.

So he decided to go back to school at nearby Garrett College. He did well -- so well that, with a 3.8 grade-point average, he was offered a full ride to Bucknell.

"It was the best and the worst of both worlds," he said. He was thrilled to go to a school far better than anything he had ever imagined. And he was terrified at what it might do to his family.

He put it off for a year, trying to talk his wife into moving. She has a full-time job at Early Head Start and is busy with their church, and their families live nearby. "I'm not one for change," Tammy Tichinel said. "This is my home."

A Wave of Pressure

A year ago, Dan Tichinel started a summer program at Bucknell designed for transfers such as him. Right away he could tell how different it would be: Not only does the campus have the patina of an Ivy League school, with old brick buildings and paths winding along lush lawns, but the professors had far higher expectations of students, with much more difficult assignments. And although he had always excelled at Garrett, "here I'm not at the top anymore," he said. "There are a lot of smart kids here. A lot."

The friendly, talkative guy who was always ready to laugh at himself got stressed out. He worked so hard to get A's that he had panic attacks during tests, second-guessing his answers at times. "The professor even seen it on the paper and wrote, 'Why did you erase this?' It cost me an A, both times.

"It's definitely not something that I would encourage people to do -- have four kids and try to go back to school."

The fall was tough. At Garrett, he didn't think twice about asking a professor for help. At Bucknell, it was harder, with busy faculty members. He would say to the other students, "Man, I'm dumb!"

The year he took off hurt him in his Calculus 3 class, he said -- he kept having to review Calc 2 before doing the homework, because he had forgotten so much. Or maybe it was because the math class he took at Garrett wasn't as demanding. "It was a nightmare."

He was smoking more, and he kept telling himself he should get to the gym. But there was never enough time. The stress and the loneliness were making it harder to concentrate, too. He was isolated; it was hard to imagine breaking into the close-knit groups of friends most sophomores had, or going out drinking with 19-year-olds.

And he was still going home every weekend to see his family.

At times, the thought would flash into his mind: He could just quit. Go home for good, leave the pressure behind. Driving home after the finals in December, he said, "Oh man, I must have studied for a solid week for 12 hours a day, and I just stunk 'em up something terrible. I did really bad on them."

Missing Out on Life at Home

One spring afternoon, his daughters Sydney and Rachel, 6 and 4, were spider-walking across the carpet while 2-year-old Daniel Jr. poked his father with a plastic devil's trident. "Play trucks with me," he said, as Tichinel tried to study at the knotty pine table he built with lumber from his uncle's sawmill.

His wife scooped ice cream into a blender for milkshakes, and Tichinel grabbed the keys to pick up the eldest, 10-year-old Brooke, from softball practice. Danny held onto his leg, pleading, "Daddy!"

"I'll be right back," Tichinel said, and tousled his son's blond hair.

It is so hard to leave, he said. "Oh man, is it hard. There's times I feel like I'm pushing them aside; they're growing up while I'm off doing my own thing." Then he wonders if bettering himself and his salary is really going to work out best for them. "I hope so," he said, shook his head, and walked out.

Tammy Tichinel poured the milkshakes into cups. "This is difficult," she said, "very difficult." Money is a constant concern.

"I just keep my vision on the future and what the outcome will be," she said, "because, believe me, the thought has crossed my mind, 'Oh my gosh, you're the one working, with the four kids and all.' " She prays, talks to friends and holds her tears until after the kids are asleep.

But her husband is getting the chances he didn't have when he was younger. "He's just blooming, and going to live his ultimate dream life."

She hopes that life will be nearby. He wants to look for jobs in Charlotte or Atlanta. She knows it won't be easy to find work in Garrett. But she would not be happy in a city, she said, and it's a great place for the children to grow up.

"I don't know about that," he said, joining her. "For me it wasn't that great. I went to school here."

A Glimpse at the Payoff

In the lab during spring semester, evaluating materials such as steel and cement, Tichinel finally felt he was learning something useful. "I'm starting to feel like I'm becoming an engineer, instead of just working my tail off," he said.

And in lab, his construction experience helped. He would blurt things out, like why shingles had to be installed a certain way to avoid corrosion, professor Kelly Salyards said. "He's more aware than most students of how important knowledge is," she said, "and that can be very helpful for the other students, those who are just floating by and not really sure yet why they're here, to see someone excited about soaking it all in."

A new friend made it easier to study and figure out tricky concepts. He started a softball team.

He still thought about quitting. But after finals, a professor offered him a part-time research job for next fall. And he got his final grades: He earned a 3.6 second semester. "Like I died and went to heaven," he said, and laughed.

Now he has summer stretching in front of him, months at home with his family, working construction, earning some money. Finally, a break from the pressure.

One year down. Two to go.

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