Old Man Goes Back to School

Not Smart Enough for College (82)

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in May of 2005. I awakened from a nap with a jolt and immediately started arguing with myself. A little voice inside my head was telling me that I needed to go back to school and get a PhD. I immediately told this voice that there was no way I was going to subject myself to the rigors of a PhD program. I was an old man and I told it to leave me alone. After all I was retired. I argued that I was going to stay retired and not subject myself to anymore work than was already on my table.


I was having was quite an argument. “You're going! No, I'm not! Yes, you are! I am not! Yes, you are, and this is what you are going to study AND this is what your dissertation will be about!” 


I don’t know how many of you have ever lost an argument with yourself but to stop my head from hurting I made an agreement with this obnoxious voice. I was confident that there would be no way I would be accepted into a PhD program and all I had to do was convince my irritating inner self that I would try.


I would go to the University of Utah, College of Health and talk with the department chair. I knew him and I was certain that he would discourage me from applying and tell me that I couldn’t compete with the younger students, or he would say that they needed the spot for other students. I was confident that this would end my aggravating negotiations and I could go back home and relax for the rest of my life.


I was shocked with this man’s response. “Why wouldn’t we accept you Cal, after all your experience in public health?”


I tried to back track and come up with all sorts of arguments that I thought would stop me from being accepted. He came up with an answer for every excuse I offered, and he even encouraged me to finish the application. I walked out of his office wondering how I could have lost an argument to myself. 


I committed to myself that if accepted I would suck it up and move forward and work hard and get that degree which I did but not without many challenges.


The first challenge was I had to be a full-time student for the first year. The second challenge was my first semester where I had to write a total of 27 papers for all my combined classes.


My third challenge was statistics. It was so hard for me that I would have traded ten years off my anticipated 100 years of life to get out of it. However, stats are such an important tool in public health I knew there was no alternative.


 Finally, my biggest challenge came when I encountered a big episode of self-doubt. When I hit the four-year mark most of the other students, I started the program with were graduating. I was not close to being finished.


One night my wonderful wife, Anne, sat down and we talked. I expressed all my frustrations and uncertainties of my decision. We talked about my Tourette syndrome and the difficulties associated with that. Then we discussed my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and finally my attention deficit disorder (ADD) and the challenges associated with each of them as well as their cumulative effects.


After this discussion, Anne summarized it by asking a simple but powerful question, “Do you know what they call the person who graduates last in their class?”


I said, “sure, they are called ‘dummy’!”


Anne responded, “no, they are called DOCTOR!” I gave her a big hug and a kiss.


I finally had clarity and from that point on I didn't worry about being the last to graduate because my degree would say ‘Doctor’ just like all my peers who graduated earlier.


I learned many life enhancing lessons from my struggles. The most important was that by working hard I was able to achieve things some people didn't believe I could do. I finished my degree and graduated in August of 2012. This educational experience was tough but against many odds I persevered and now I use this achievement to motivate my grandchildren and other young people and their parents to recognize that in life we encounter many struggles but with persistence, a belief in yourself, and someone who believes in you miracles happen. 


It is true that our children all struggle with challenges that are difficult and in a large part their success is dependent on us and our belief in them. Do we enable them to feel sorry for themselves and make excuses so they can walk away from the challenge, or do we build them up and help them understand that their challenges can be tough, but they are strong and capable of overcoming them and by so doing to achieve their goals?


Here's to Failing Forward,



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