Motivated Fanatics – Part 1

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There are a lot of smart, experienced people who are eager to offer advice.  Sometimes the best thing to do is to ignore it.  Especially if you’re a motivated fanatic.

My college education includes Associates, Bachelor’s and Masters degrees.  As with many of my accomplishments, I took the most unconventional route imaginable to get them.  Two years of minimum wage jobs after high school to convinced me the path to more money ran through the local junior college.  When the time came to make that decision, I went to the job placement office and scanned the bulletin board for available jobs (this was before the internet) and their starting pay rates.  I noticed that the highest paying jobs were those that required a technical degree.  Fortunately, I was most interested in technical subjects.  So I put a plan in place to earn a technical Associates degree within two years.

By the end of the first semester, I was very happy with my choice.  I made straight ‘A’s in 15 semester hours of technical courses.  One of those ‘A’s came from a drafting course.  The ‘A’ in drafting allowed me to quit my job in the stock room at a Sears catalog store and get hired at a local manufacturing company as a draftsman.  This was mechancial arm, pencil on paper, blueprint-making-with-ammonia-developer draftingAutoCAD was still years away.  Machinery’s Handbook, my TI calculator with the red LED display and my college trigonometry notes had permanent homes on the upper right hand corner of my drafting table, next to my eraser brush.

I had the best boss in the world at this job.  Mr Potter, the chief engineer, had been with the company for decades.  He was a few years away from retirement, but had bounce and energy of a man half his age.  He was a patient teacher, and I was an eager learner.  Best of all, he was very supportive of my college work, allowing me to work a flexible schedule around my classes.  After two years at the drafting table and successful completion of my Associates degree, he helped me promote into my first supervisory role. 

My associates degree required 66 semester hours of technical classes and I completed that work with a 3.8/4.0 GPA.  Seeing the career success possible in earning a 2-year degree, I set my sights higher on earning Bachelor’s degree.  At that time, the first two years of any Bachelor’s degree consisted of a common set of state-required English, history, government, humanities, phys ed and math courses.  My Associates degree included much of the math and one of the English classes, but did not have any of the other required classes.  So I continued to take those lower-level courses at the junior college while I worked my supervisor job at the manufacturing company.

In two more years, I had taken everything that was possible to take at the junior college.  With more than 120 semester hours total and a 3.6/4.0 GPA, all my lower-level Bachelor requirements were complete.

Now what?

Back then, junior colleges and four-year universities were just beginning to form partnerships and transfer arrangements for students like me.  Most colleges did not have them, although some forward-thinking administrators recognized the need.  I had the great fortune of meeting one who was the Chairman of the Industrial Technology department at a university a little over an hour’s drive from my home.

In spite of having never done anything like this before, the Chairman worked out a way for almost all of my junior college coursework to transfer into one of his Bachelor of Science programs.  At the end, I was left with having to meet only the university’s minimum graduation requirements to get the degree. This included 58 semester hours of upper-level courses in my major and minor areas of study – none of which I had been able to take at the junior college.

This was the break I needed.  Now all I had to do was figure out how to take all those classes – almost all offered only during the day – that far from home.  As flexible as things were at work, there was no way to complete these classes and continue working for the manufacturing company. 

It took a few weeks of strategizing, and more than a few rounds with the TI calculator, but I was able to come up with a plan for getting the Bachelor’s degree.  It wouldn’t be easy, and there was absolutely no room for error – error meaning not getting a class in the right semester, on the right day or time, or not passing the class.  It also meant I had to take a couple of classes without having taken the prerequisite.

My plan had me taking all 58 semester hours in one calendar year.  Between cutting expenses to the bone and working part-time jobs, one year off the career track was all I could afford.  It meant my semester loads would be 22 credit hours to start, 18 hours over two summer sessions and 18 hours for the last semester.  Not only did I have to get signed up for every class at the exact time I needed, every class had to have enough enrollment to avoid cancellation.  And, acceptance into every class where there was an unfulfilled prerequisite was a given.

Thank goodness I was a good drummer and bass player.  Performing in clubs and bars late at night was about the only work my school and homework schedule would allow.

In spite of the course load, I completed the first semester and two summer sessions with excellent grades.  A native interest in all things technical made it easy for me to stay engaged in the coursework.  Prior work experience in the field had already introduced me to many of the topics, and I was able to offer a perspective that set me apart from the typical inexperienced 19-20 year-olds who were my classmates.  Even though the days were long, the hours were about the same as department supervisor.

My plan was unfolding exactly as I had envisioned.  By the end of summer, one semester – a mere 18 credit hours – was all that stood between me and my goal.  I could see the finish line and I was the one with the ribbon streaming across my chest.

One of courses I had to take in my grand plan was an advanced technical illustration course.  Although it was an elective course, it was an upper-level course offered on days and times that fit exactly where I needed it in my jigsaw puzzle of a schedule.  Being an advanced course, it had a lower-level prerequisite that I never took.

In these days before the internet or widespread use of PCs, college registrations were held in auditoriums and gymnasiums.  Faculty and administrators seated at tables throughout the room represented different colleges and departments in the University.  Students snaked their way through the maze of stations eagerly in search of the adhesive labels with course and section numbers printed of classes they wanted to join.  As students gathered their labels, they affixed them to a registration sheet.  Once all you had all your course labels, you got in line to have the course information entered into a mainframe computer by staff using terminals with small green CRTs.

Among others seated at the Industrial Technology table when I arrived was a short, grey-haired man.  When I asked for a label listing the advanced technical illustration course, he paused and looked me in the eye.

“I teach that course.” he said as he looked me up and down, not recognizing me.  The name badge on his jacket lapel read “Professor Perkins”.  “Do you have the prerequisite?” he asked.

“No, sir, I don’t.”  I looked him straight in the eye and spoke with my deepest, most confident voice.  “But I’m very experienced in mechanical drafting and I’m sure I’ll do well in your course.”

Professor Perkins gaze moved from me to the next person in line.  “The prerequisite exists for a reason, young man.  If you don’t have the prerequisite, you’re going to fail the advanced course.  Or, you’re going to drop my course once you realize it’s hopeless.  You must have the prerequisite before I’ll let anyone sign up for this course.”

This was totally unacceptable.

“But sir, I have a lot of work experience as a draftsman and I…”  He turned his gaze back to me as he cut me off in mid-sentence.

“Sir.” he said taking my tone, “This isn’t a drafting course, its technical illustration.  We don’t do anything close to drafting until the final project.  The final project is drawing a floor plan and elevation a building designed to MY specification.  And, you have to SHOW FENESTRATION!”

I had no clue what fenestration was.  All I knew was that I had to have this course, and I only needed to make a ‘C’.  I made no less than a ‘B’ in my hardest technical course.  No matter how difficult or complicated it would be, I knew I could show him some of the best fenestration he’d ever seen… from someone lacking the prerequisite.

Looking at the course label right in front of me, I moved around to the side of the table diagonally across from him and took a seat in a vacant chair.  I wanted his full attention and realized that standing over him was wrong posture for this conversation.

“Professor Perkins.”  I ditched the deep confident voice and softened it considerably.  “I really appreciate the concern you show for students.  We’re fortunate to have people like you leading us.”  He began to listen.

“I’m sure you’ve seen many of us take on more than we’re prepared to handle, and fail as a result.  You’ve made it very clear to me that without the prerequisite, I’ll have an uphill battle.  But if you’ll just consider allowing me to register for a moment, I’ll give you my word on something.”

“What’s that?” he said.  He’d heard it all before.

I looked him straight in the eye and did not blink.  “Sir, if you’ll show a little confidence in me, I’ll give you my word I’ll have perfect attendance and will stick with the class to the bitter end if it comes to that.  I will not drop your class at the first, second or twentieth sign of difficulty.  You see, I have to pass this class this semester because I have to graduate at the end of the semester.  I’m a motivated fanatic.”

He paused just long enough for me to know there was hope.

 “I’m not holding out much hope for that” he said as he turned toward the sheet of labels “… and I’m not going to cut you any slack.  You know the odds.”  He peeled off the course label and placed it on my registration sheet.

I offered my hand, told him what a pleasure it was to meet him and thanked him for the chance to prove myself.  “I won’t disappoint you.”

As my final semester progressed, Professor Perkins was true to his word – he did not show me any slack.  For my part, I not only learned what fenestration meant, I demonstrated I knew how to show it.  Well enough to earn an ‘A’ on the final project and an ‘A’ in his course.  I successfully completed all my coursework that semester and graduated just as I planned.

That’s what motivated fanatics do.

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