When Michael Vaudreuil’s college classmates were in the library studying together at night, he was wiping down chalkboards and picking up their trash.
But this weekend, donning a black cap and gown, he stood with them not as a 54-year-old college custodian but as a fellow undergraduate.
It was 2008, the year of the economic downturn, when Vaudreuil filed for bankruptcy, his house was foreclosed on and his car repossessed. His thriving 24-year plastering business had ground to a halt as the economy waned.
Months earlier, in May 2007, a typically busy time for construction work, he sat home for two weeks without any jobs lined up, the first time that had ever happened in all the years he’d been an independent contractor. It was an early indication that hard times were ahead. By fall, he tried to find a steady job with a construction company but by then no one was hiring. And now he no longer had the extra income to support his wife’s entrepreneurial effort — a coffee vending machine business — so that went under too.
The only work he could find was as a night custodian at a local college. It was about a 50 percent pay cut, the work wasn’t stimulating, but the benefits were good. He decided he would take advantage of every free benefit the school offered so it would feel like he was making more money.
So Vaudreuil starting taking undergraduate classes tuition free at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts by day, and cleaning up after his classmates by night.
“I started taking classes to occupy my time constructively and get my mind off all the crap we were going through. It was one day at a time really,” he said. “I felt productive … and it was paying dividends for how it was affecting me personally. A couple years into it I realized that if I kept it up I could get a degree.”
Nearly a decade after his life unraveled, Vaudreuil graduated on May 14 with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. He wrote “OLD DOG HAS NEW TRICKS” on the top of his mortarboard, and on each corner inscribed a single initial: a “J” for Joyce, his wife; a “P”, for Paul, his son; and an “A” and “N” for Amanda and Nicole, his daughters.
At the graduation ceremony — his whole family there to see him receive his diploma — the college president, Laurie A. Leshin, named Vaudreuil in her commencement speech.
“Mike could have stopped at any time. But he did not give up,” she said. “And today, at the age of 54, Mike will receive his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. That’s perseverance. Where are you Mike? Let’s give Mike a hand.”
Surrounded by fellow graduates half his age, Vaudreuil stood. He took a little bow. The crowd cheered.
“We are so proud of you, Mike!” Leshin said.
Decades earlier, in 1982, Vaudreuil received an associate’s degree in aeronautical engineering, but didn’t pursue his chosen career in the struggling airline industry. To provide for his family he started work as a plasterer. When he lost his business in 2007 and took the college custodial job, he thought his professional life was over. That is until he found purpose in academia.
“I’m in my mid-40s and I lost everything, this is it for me,” Vaudreuil said he thought back then. “I tried and tried and I failed, so I just have to exist the rest of my life. But the schooling crept up on me and I realized I could do something with my life. It was the only exciting opportunity ahead of me. This is the last train out of the station and I have to get on it and do everything I can to make it work this time.”
He first enrolled in psychology courses, a subject that interested him, but he soon realized that if he was really going to work toward a degree he needed to pursue a major with strong employment prospects at the end. That’s when he switched to mechanical engineering.
He did schoolwork in the early mornings and after class in the afternoons before he started his 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift cleaning the academic building bathrooms and powerscrubing the floors. He rarely saw his wife, who had gone back to school as well to get a teaching degree. She worked days, he worked nights. And when he was home he was studying.
The engineering classes were challenging. He had to drop Calculus 1 initially because his basic Algebra was too rusty. So he self-taught himself through YouTube videos, and went on to ace Calculus 1 -4. He refused to give up.
As he got closer and closer to his degree, it became harder and harder for him to go from his classes to the custodial work. He was “chomping at the bit” to graduate, he said, so he asked permission to double his class load — the free-tuition program typically covered one class a term — and it was granted.
His supervisor, Gary Antinarella, said he noticed a difference in Vaudreuil when he started taking the classes. There was a buoyancy that wasn’t there before.
“He just became a happier person,” Antinarella said. “He’s a very intelligent guy so his mind was always active. He’s a pleasant guy, but it made him a nicer person and employee.”
Other employees had taken advantage of the free classes perk, but none to the extent Vaudreuil did, said Antinarella, who has worked at the school for 20 years. Seeing their colleague succeed was a motivational boost to the whole custodial staff, he said.
Vaudreuil’s wife, Joyce, said they both came from families that instilled the value that when you get knocked down, “you pick yourself up, and dust yourself off and move forward.”
At the graduation, when Vaudreuil walked to the stage to accept his diploma, his wife said her husband didn’t walk, “he strutted.” The crowd exploded in applause for him, she said.
For Vaudreuil, it was incredible, but still bittersweet. In January 2008, when they knew they were going to lose their livelihood, his mother passed away at age 66. She was on his mind when he crossed the stage.
“It was really emotional, I gotta tell you,” he said. But he added, “I always imagined that it would feel great. It was actually better.”
By Monday, Vaudreuil was back to work at his custodial job. But he hopes not for long.
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