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From Here to There in 58 Years: A Slacker’s Story

By Phillip Regan

            The setting: June, 1965. High school, senior year.

            I was in my homeroom, part of a small group of students who gathered each day before the start of classes. Every morning was the same: I’d go to the back of the room, sit behind that really tall guy, and hope I was invisible.

            J. D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye was open on my lap, and I sneaked an occasional peek to read a paragraph or two. The book struck a chord. The teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield, was having trouble dealing with life. So was I.

            Mr. Monroe stood at the front of the room. He was our advisor, although I don’t think he ever advised anyone about anything. I also don’t think he even knew my name, possibly because I never gave him any reason to learn it.

           Mr. Monroe droned on about our upcoming graduation ceremony, our oh-so-proud families, blahblahblah. I didn’t care about any of that stuff, especially since it was a pretty good bet I wouldn’t be graduating.

            As my high school career creaked and groaned its way to the finish line, it was clear I was not going to be chosen Most Likely to Succeed. The Don’t Be Like This Guy award was more likely. I wasn’t a troublemaker, but I had truancy down to an art form. I was cutting classes two or three times a week – sometimes even skipping full days. Still, despite my lack of initiative, I was managing to (barely) pass all of my classes – except biology.

            At the start of the semester, school administrators let my mother know they were not happy with me. They wanted me out of there, which put pressure on me to pass biology. But even if I did pass, some of my earlier school shenanigans would contribute to my still being four credits short of the forty I needed to graduate. Most kids would probably panic at the prospect of not graduating. I was simply resigned.

           Surprisingly, I’d managed to score a C- on my biology mid-term a couple of months earlier. But that grade had nothing to do with studying and everything to do with being a good guesser. This minor success was too little, too late, though. A semester F loomed.

A High School Carpetbagger

            This was my third high school. The first, my freshman and sophomore years, was run by the Catholic Brothers of something-or-other. My mother felt that religious schools offered a better education than public schools, so that’s where she sent my sister and me. The irony is that my mother had absolutely no use for religion – she thought it was bunk. One of our family’s favorite pastimes was sitting in front of the television on Sunday nights, laughing at Oral Roberts and his money-grabbing “hands-on healing” scam.

            I’d been tossed out of that first school for insubordination. The folks at the second school  – my junior year – weren’t too fond of me either, especially given my tendency to avoid attending classes. Nothing was official, but that June a teacher took me aside and strongly suggested I go elsewhere next year.

           One year later, there I was in school number three, trying to get through that biology course in one piece. The past two weeks, shelving my usual learning system – open the book, sit quietly as my eyes glaze over, close the book – I actually studied. It was too late to really absorb this stuff, but if I could remember some terminology and concepts, and make some good guesses, I had a whisper of a chance at a D-.

            The last day of the semester was also the day of my biology final. Several of my fellow students slunk into the lab that morning. They looked afraid and desperate, signs that they were doing as well in the class as I was. But in a scene reminiscent of a sugary Hallmark Channel finale, the skies opened up: Our teacher announced that our test would be open book.

            Everyone thought he was kidding. Was he feeling sorry for us? Who knew? Who even cared? What mattered to me was that now I had a chance to avoid failing the course.

            And I did it. I passed the exam, bringing my final grade for the semester to a D. I was going to graduate. But...maybe not. I still needed those last four credits I mentioned earlier. The rosy glow of success was fading. Without those credits I would not be graduating. But then, despite my lack of religious conviction, religion saved the day.

            As I noted, my first high school was Catholic, and students had to take religion courses – two each year. I was there for two years, and miraculously (sorry...) did well in those courses, earning four credits. Public schools such as the one I was now attending could not teach religion, of course – separation of church and state, you know – but some clever administrator, desperate to get me out of there, devised a plan: I’d get credit for four elective theology courses. I don’t know how he did it, but he somehow persuaded the school district to OK the idea. Late in the afternoon of that final day of school, word came down: The four credits had been granted. I was going to graduate.

Now What Do I Do?

            Our high school yearbook featured graduating seniors’ photos – smiling faces fairly glowing with youthful enthusiasm, each accompanied by optimistic blurbs citing post-high school plans for college, travel, military service, and any number of other bright futures.

            The world was waiting to be conquered, but I told it to go ahead without me. My yearbook photo was accompanied by this statement: “Phil is still wondering what the future holds.” I continued to wonder for the next half-century.

The Chance of a Lifetime Thrown Away

            After graduation, my thoughts turned back to a year earlier. Out of the blue, my uncle had offered to pay my way through four years of college: tuition, books, lodging...the whole package. I declined. Throughout the next year he continued to repeat the offer, while I continued to reject it. He finally gave up offering.

            My decision to forego college was based on two factors. The first was ignorance. I truly believed that applying to colleges would be a waste of time and energy because I thought no school would accept me because of my crappy grades. I guessed that maybe I could get into a trade school – “Hey, kid, you can be a plumber!” – but certainly not a “real” college. I had no idea how the system worked, and assumed that I was forever excluded from higher education.

            Then there was factor number two: My then-girlfriend had a chokehold on my conscience. She was very volatile and very manipulative. She said if I left her for any reason, she’d kill herself. She repeated this many times and I believed her. In my mind, I was responsible for keeping her alive.

            After high school I scored a dead end job as a shelf-stocker/delivery guy for a pharmacy – the one owned by the uncle who wanted to pay my way through college. After a year I quit and opened a small bowling supply store and pro shop. Bowling was my passion. I was good at it, so I thought the store made sense. It did. It was profitable from the start, but true to form, I managed to bankrupt it in two years through sheer mismanagement.

            I was twenty-one when my store folded. By this time I was married to the aforementioned girl – the one who was going to kill herself if I left. Needing a job, I answered an ad in a local newspaper: “Warehouse management trainee wanted for local trucking company.” I was hired right away. After about a year, my employer wanted to send me to school to take transportation law courses. Seriously? I was twenty-two years old. Even if a school would accept me despite my terrible high school grades, I was sure I was too old to start college.

            And so I began preparing to leave my job. The scenario I imagined went like this: Apply for admission to the college, be rejected. Employer chastises me, and, humiliated, I quit. But this school accepted me without comment about my high school grades. In a series of five courses I scored a B average and earned fifteen credits.

            Those five courses revealed three facts: At least some schools would accept me for enrollment, I wasn’t too old to go to college, and I’d screwed up big time by not taking my uncle up on his offer.

           By 1977 my wife and I had two kids – boys. She and I argued constantly. I couldn’t take it any longer and filed for divorce. Several weeks after we split I went to her (formerly our) house to see the kids. Remember I said she was volatile? When I turned my back, she smashed me over the head with a coffee pot, opening up my scalp, spreading shards of glass all over the place, and sending me to the emergency room. She didn’t kill herself, though, and even today the flat spot she put on the back of my skull is a reminder that I did the right thing.  

A Couple of Flashbacks  

            In 1957 I received a transistor radio for Christmas. It was bright red and huge, made of thick plastic, and felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. Its telescoping antenna protruded about eighteen inches from the top of its case, so I was constantly trying – and often failing – to avoid poking people with it as I walked by.

           I lugged my radio everywhere, and for hours on end I listened to music, mysteries, dramas, news – anything, everything. It wasn’t long before I began thinking that a radio career might be possible. I was ten years old.

            In 1966 I secured a Federal Communications Commission license with a Broadcast Endorsement, all of which meant that I was legally allowed to “talk on the radio.” (Such a license is no longer required.) I quickly secured a position as a volunteer “go-fer” at a small, non-profit radio station, but I screwed that up by accidentally knocking the station off the air for an hour my first night on the job. I was required to post my license at the station in order to work there, but after that incident I was too embarrassed to go back to get it. The station mailed it to me.

The School Bug Bites

           After taking the radio station off the air, my career as a broadcaster stalled. I went to work managing a trucking company. But in 1984, I decided to give radio another try. I worked days, so I began taking mass communication night courses – including radio techniques and news writing – at a community college.

            While sitting in class one evening, a little light went off in my head and I thought, “As long as I’m taking these courses, how about if I take some courses in other subjects?”

            I began tentatively, taking courses in U. S. history and ecology. At thirty-eight I was the oldest student in my classes, which I thought was kind of amusing. I remarried shortly before I turned forty. My wife earned a good income, and encouraged me to quit my job and focus on radio. So I did.

            I continued school and began volunteering at another non-profit station, using my college training to gain experience as a reporter and news anchor, and filling in as a disc jockey. I also lucked into a part-time, paying job in the newsroom of a commercial radio station, where, among other duties, I interviewed newsmakers, wrote news stories, and rewrote wire service copy.

            By age forty-six I was doing OK – sometimes working at three radio stations at the same time. I was still going to college, and astonished to learn I had accumulated seventy-five semester credits. But at the same time, my ego was taking a hit. Radio is usually not the best career choice for someone wanting to earn a real living. My paltry income embarrassed me, so I went back to working a day job at another trucking company.

            In 2001, still working days, I took a part-time night shift, twice a week, at a radio station near my home. As expected, it didn’t pay much, but that didn’t matter. It was fun.

            By 2002 I was no longer married, my former wife having decided years ago that she wanted to take her life in a different direction.

           By 2009 I was Vice President of Operations for a recycling company – a well-paying but unsatisfying job – and was no longer involved with radio. I finally retired in 2015 at age sixty-eight. How would I spend my time? I had no idea.

Can I Do This?

            In 2020 the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus was causing havoc around the world. People locked themselves indoors, trying to stay safe. That same year, tragedy struck home when my eldest son died after a long, painful bout with cancer. These two events – a pandemic and my son’s too-early death – were perhaps what caused me to begin thinking about the future. To do that, I once again started thinking about the past.

           Many years ago I was scheduled to have a telephone interview with a man regarding a job with his company – a job for which I was experienced and skilled. Literally the first words out of his mouth were, “Do you have a four-year college degree?” I said I did not, at which point he replied, “I don’t hire anyone without a degree.” I tried to enumerate my qualifications. He cut me off. “Sorry,” he said, and that was the end of the “interview.” This is just one example of why I always regretted not graduating from college. Maybe my son’s death and the pandemic were the triggers, but in October I decided that I was going to go back to school and get the degree I wished I’d pursued so many years earlier.

Where Do I Begin?

            It was obvious that returning to college at seventy-three was not going to be easy. It had been a long time since I’d seriously thought of school, so it made sense for me to begin on a part-time basis. Fortunately, I had the support of my partner. She had earned her degrees years earlier, and enthusiastically encouraged me every step of the way.               

            First step: Take a College-Level Examination Program test. CLEP, as it’s known, gives students the opportunity to earn college credit by demonstrating knowledge of certain subjects. I decided to challenge English Composition. Passing meant I’d be awarded six lower division credits. I aced the test. The credits were “in the bank.” Next step: Find a school where I could apply them.

            The most important thing for me was to graduate from a legitimately accredited college. In a nutshell, legitimate (my term) accreditation agencies, which are overseen by the federal government, set strict educational standards that colleges and universities must adhere to. Some so-called accreditation agencies are phonies, so in-depth research was a must.

The Search Begins

            At this point I had no idea where I would go to school, what I would choose as a major, or how much this would cost.

            One roadblock was that the closest four-year, legitimately accredited, degree-granting college was a two-hour drive from my home. The thought of a four-hour round-trip commute, two or three times a week, was not at all appealing. Then there was the length of semesters. Sixteen weeks? Too long.

            After many hours of Internet searching, I found Charter Oak State College (COSC), located in New Britain, Connecticut. As part of that state’s college system, COSC is a fully-online school, accredited by the New England Commission on Higher Education. It offers Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, eight-week semesters, and reasonable per-credit fees. Significantly, it allows transfer of lower-division credits from other schools.

            I applied to COSC in early 2021. I was accepted and became a college student. Again.


            I’d been telling people it didn't matter what my degree was in; I joked that basket-weaving would be fine. In reality, my choices were somewhat limited because my previous college work was quite narrow in scope, consisting mostly of broadcasting courses, a few General Education courses, and fifteen upper division credits from those law courses I’d taken so long ago. COSC doesn’t offer a communication degree, so I went with my Plan B: I’d pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in General Studies with a Communication Concentration.

            Saying I was going to finish college and actually doing it were two entirely different things. As is common with bachelor’s degrees, I needed one-hundred-twenty credits to graduate. Still, as I mentioned earlier, I already had seventy-five. That made it seventy-five down, forty-five to go.

This is Even Harder Than I Thought It Would Be

           All but three of the courses I took while working toward my degree at COSC were condensed semesters – sixteen weeks crammed into eight. My first was a three-credit requirement called Cornerstone, titled Thinking for Yourself, Reflecting, and Evaluating Success and Failure in the New Age of Information, which involved many hours of research and writing.

            Two factors convinced me to take just one short-semester course at a time. First, sixteen weeks condensed into eight meant that these courses would be very intense. Also, school was expensive: At $457 per COSC credit – which is not outrageous for an out-of-state student – plus books and fees, plus community college costs, I figured I’d need to spend about $15,000.

            It would be nice if I could say that I breezed through my final forty-five credits, that they were easy, that I didn’t even work up a sweat. Unfortunately, I didn’t, they weren’t, and I did. Even now, just thinking about those General Education courses makes my palms sweat: quantitative reasoning, historical knowledge, social and behavioral sciences, scientific reasoning, information literacy, college mathematics, philosophy. And of course, just to vex me, human biology.

            I took courses where I could find them, including community colleges in Mendocino, Los Altos Hills, and Santa Ana. All were online, and all were lower division. Interestingly, one of those lower division courses was a virtual twin of an upper division COSC course, so I received upper division credit from COSC.

           COSC students can choose to write portfolios, which are alternatives to traditional three-credit courses. Instead of attending class, students demonstrate advanced knowledge of topics related to their major or concentration. I decided to write one portfolio. Thinking it would be a relatively easy project, I chose to demonstrate my knowledge of the topics taught in an upper division course offered by California State University – Bakersfield titled “Broadcast Writing, Reporting, and Production.” 

            This turned out to be the toughest school task I’d ever dealt with, so difficult that at times I wished I’d just said the hell with it and taken the actual course. I didn’t have an instructor, of course, because to opt to write a portfolio is to claim to have high-level knowledge of a specific topic. I did have an advisor, though. She was tough but fair, and guided me through the process by offering gentle criticisms and helpful suggestions. I spent four months on the project, finally submitting a seventy-four page document that I felt was worthy of the three upper division credits being offered. Then I had to wait until it ran the gauntlet of a review panel.

            After a couple of weeks the verdict came down. Not only did I receive an A for my portfolio, but I was being awarded six credits instead of three. I was now just three upper division credits – one course – away from graduation.

            My final requirement was to complete the three-credit, eight-week Capstone. To quote the COSC catalog, “The purpose of this experience is to demonstrate mastery of the learning outcomes in the chosen concentration or major and writing and critical thinking skills.”

            Capstones are somewhat similar to portfolios, although not as intensive. As with the portfolio, Capstone students have advisors, not instructors. With their advisors’ OK, students demonstrate extensive knowledge of any topic or topics relating to their degree concentration. I researched and wrote about “The Effects of Fox News on American Politics.” As with my portfolio, my Capstone was not an easy project, but the A I received was ample reward.

            I had my one-hundred-twenty credits.

            On June 1, 2023, I received the following email from COSC: “Congratulations! Your records have been received, reviewed, and audited and you are now a May 31, 2023 Charter Oak State College graduate!” And, I would be graduating with Honors.

            At the urging of friends, I attended the COSC commencement ceremony in Connecticut. Another honor: Before the ceremony I was asked to be one of just six graduates (out of hundreds) to be interviewed on-camera for a promotional video.

            The ceremony – this public acknowledgement of my accomplishment – was rewarding. And it actually felt good when I learned I was the oldest graduate of the Class of 2023.   

            After the ceremony, I was standing outside the auditorium when a young man, maybe thirty years old, walked up to me. He introduced himself, we shook hands, and what he said then made all of my work worth the effort: “I wanted to thank you for showing me it’s never too late to finish college,” he said. “You are my role model.”

            And there it was: At seventy-five years of age, I’d made the transition from high school slacker to – finally – college graduate.

Click HERE to Read More of My Stories

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