“A DREAM DOESN’T BECOME REALITY THROUGH MAGIC; IT TAKES SWEAT, DETERMINATION, AND HARD WORK.” – Colin Powell
With all the challenges Bree and I faced within just the first few months of marriage and how those challenges stretched out over the next four years, we probably could have just given up – and pretty much everyone we know has told us that they would have accepted any one of a thousand different events in those four years as justification for quitting. Luckily, my Bree is not a quitter and neither am I, and together we worked our way side by side, and hand in hand, through each and every challenge. Instead of growing apart or angry with one another, we grew closer, became better friends, and actually began looking forward to the next crazy experience because we knew that together we could withstand anything life could throw at us. It is with that confidence, commitment, and grit that we began the next phase of our marriage.
At this stage in our life, I had just wrapped up nine months of working the graveyard shift at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City as a security guard, and had upgraded a bit to a more job with a more normal schedule. I was a computer technician at Best Buy on the Geek Squad spending my time diagnosing consumer computer problems.
One Saturday after work I arrived home to find Bree in a really good mood and pretty excited about something. When I asked her what was up, she excitedly began to tell me about a university she had just seen a commercial for on the television; some crazy new school called Northface University. She explained that it was a computer science school where people were taught to become enterprise software developers in a hands-on project-based environment. “It just sounds like you” she kept telling me as we investigated the school online.
We looked through all of their propaganda and in the end I told her it was just too expensive, and that now that I had a decent job that paid okay, we had a real chance to recover from four years of being semi-homeless, jobless, on public assistance, and from our mounds of medical and consumer debt built up from just surviving. But Bree being Bree, told me she really didn’t care what I had to say and proceeded to tell me that she had already lined up a meeting with an admission officer at the school, and that we were scheduled to attend an open house the coming Saturday.
When Bree is set on something she is like a Rottweiler with its favorite toy, you can pull on that toy as long as you like, she won’t be letting go. So I relented, and on that Saturday we headed to the open house. I do have to admit, once I let my guard down and really learned about Northface University (soon to change its name to Neumont University) during that open house I realized my wife was not wrong, it did sound like me. That very day I enrolled and prepared to start the next quarter.
Testing Our Resolve
I began school at the start of the next quarter. I was excited but also extremely nervous. I had not been in any form of schooling for over three and a half years, I was a returning adult, my wife had just delivered our third child, we had two toddlers in diapers, and this was an accelerated program. OK, I was a little more than nervous. I knew there was so much potential, but also so much responsibility riding on my shoulder.
I started with cohort three. That’s right, the school was so new that I was in only the third student intake the school had ever had, a part of their inaugural group. On the first day of the quarter we were all issued the laptops we would be using for the next two years. Unlike the majority of my peers, my laptop had a red dot sticker on its cover. That dot was an indicator that I had not yet received full funding for that quarter and that I was not permitted to take the laptop home. So every night after classes I would have to turn in my laptop to IT and then pick it up in the morning.
I did everything I could to get funding. I first tried to qualify on my own but due to four years of being in and out of jobs, practically homeless, and a bankruptcy on my credit, it turned out to be impossible. I then turned to my parents for assistance, but that turned out to be one of the most humiliating and demoralizing experiences of my life. I sat down with my parents, told them all about the school and the potential it had to help Bree and I change our lives and the lives of our children. I explained that I just needed a cosigner and that after I graduated and found employment, I would refinance and remove them. They did their due diligence and asked a lot of questions, but in the end they told me that based on the last four years – my inability to keep a job and take care of my wife and kids – they did not feel like there was any way I could or would follow through on such an expensive and time-consuming endeavor; they told me no. At the time, as a young adult struggling to do right by his family, it was a huge punch to the gut and it momentarily knocked the wind out of my sails. It was not at all what I expected from my parents but if they wouldn’t help, I would not stop until I found someone who would. The next stop was Bree’s parents, who sadly gave us the same response and vote of no confidence.
I only allowed the pain to affect me for a moment, and as my wife and I drove away from each of those interactions, the pain turned into anger, and that anger turned into a strong determination. I was determined to show everyone who said Bree and I were not capable of changing our lives, who believed I was not smart enough, and who said I would give up at the first sign of difficulty that they were absolutely wrong. I was going to show everyone that Bree and I were not scum, we were not leeches, we were not drifters, we were not a drain on society. I was going to make them see that Bree and I were more powerful than our circumstances, and more capable than we appeared.
If I thought having our parents pretty much call us losers was a horrible experience, I was in for a special treat. At the end of my first week of classes, the IT director as well as the director of student services, approached me as I arrived at the school and very professionally informed me that financial aid was unable to obtain funding for me. I was being dropped from all courses and I needed to turn over my laptop. Now that was a tough experience, being informed after applying an entire weeks worth of effort to my goal, that what appeared to be my one opportunity to change the direction of my family’s life was being pulled out of my hands and there was nothing I could do about it. I went to my car and quietly cried then headed home to tell Bree.
Not Going Down Without a Fight
As I have already mentioned Bree is a fighter, and after four years of marriage I had picked up a little bit of that fire, so when I told her my funding did not go through and that I had been removed from classes she got fired up – which in turn got me fired up. After all the years of battling challenges, neither of us was about to let this opportunity be stripped from us so quickly, least of all without a fight. So we dug in our heels and called financial aid at Neumont and told them they needed to try harder. And while they searched through all of the options out there, Bree and I did the same. Eventually, it all came back to signature student loans, the same ones our parents would not co-sign on. We prayed and we prayed, and again we prayed, and then we reapplied. I firmly believe that someone up above was looking out for our tired little family because on the second attempt at applying for the same loans we were rejected for only a few weeks before, we were miraculously approved and I received my financing.
Work, Work, & More Work
In the wake of the miracle funding, I started classes the very next quarter as part of cohort four. I ended up building some amazing peer relationships and together we spent the next two years changing our lives together. At the time I attended, Neumont’s computer science program was set up in a way that got you through a four-year bachelor’s degree in just two years. That is right, each quarter you were taking between 26 and 28 quarter credit hours, and at school for 10-12 hours a day. It was a lot of work, but I have never regretted a second of it.
Things were going great at school, which should have given us a clue that something challenging was looming just out of sight. Then one night, as I was up late as always studying for an examination in the morning, I realized I had not had the opportunity to see or play with our toddlers nor our newborn as they were all in bed before I got home. And as I sat there, I had a strong desire to go to my room and grab Ellie out of the bassinette so I could hold her while I studied. At first, I ignored the impulse because holding a baby would just impede my ability to study effectively, and it was an important exam. But as I sat there the urge became more and more intense, and I finally gave in.
I went to the bedroom and scooped our beautiful baby girl into my arms and headed back to my desk. As I held her, read, and took notes, I noticed that Ellie was breathing strangely and I called Bree over. We both sat there for a minute watching her struggle to breathe, and as the minutes ticked by and we loosened her clothes and tried to wake her, her breathing became weaker and weaker. As we tried to rouse her, her breathing eventually stopped. My baby girl had just died in my arms and I never got to say goodnight to her.
Having been a Boy Scout and having certified for CPR numerous times, I immediately began CPR on my tiny daughter. It was surreal, instead of being filled with fear or panic, I was as calm as stone and I worked with a focus and determination I had never known. Bree and I took turns working on Ellie trying to save her life. During one of the rotations, Bree jumped up and ran to the phone and called 911. By the time the first responders arrived, we had Ellie breathing again, well more like screaming at the top of her lungs. I can only imagine how bad her lungs and chest hurt. The medics looked her over and pronounced her stable and asked if we wanted to take her to the hospital or if we wanted them to. Being that we had no insurance we signed a release and immediately headed up to Primary Children’s Hospital at the University of Utah.
We spent the next week at the hospital while medical teams ran every test imaginable. Eventually, it was decided it had to have been SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome. They told us there was really nothing that could be done for her in the hospital, that we were fortunate to have been with her when it happened, and that it was time for her to go back home. To help us out though, the doctor did prescribe us a baby breathing monitor, which is a sensor that is strapped to a baby’s chest and connected to one heck of a loud alarm. Because of what had happened we had Ellie sleeping in a bassinette next to Bree’s side of the bed, and over the next 6 months it went off several times. Luckily, each of those events was not an emergency as Ellie’s breathing had slowed considerably but had not stopped, and after we woke up, checked on her, and repositioned her, the alarm would disarm. Of course, that didn’t mean that Bree and I would disarm, far from it. We would then spend the rest of the night taking turns being on guard duty. Eventually, Ellie grew out of her breathing problems and became a fiery little toddler, oh yes, she takes after her mother, 100%.
Winners Through Persistence
With a few general education courses able to be transferred from the University of Utah, taking a full credit load each quarter, massive amounts of caffeine, and intense emotional support from Bree I was able to complete a four-year bachelor’s of computer science degree in a year and three quarters. I graduated with a 3.9 GPA, honored Summa Cum Laude, and was Valedictorian of my graduating class. I had job offers to pick from before I even walked on stage to collect my diploma, including one from IBM.
Our lives had finally changed. The change did not come from a wealthy benefactor or deceased rich uncle, it did not come through handouts, and it did not come as an anonymous gift. It was the result of a strong work ethic, determination, willpower, hard work, persistence, and most important of all, the teamwork from a powerfully strong set of individuals working together to better their futures and the futures of their kids.
The ability to change your future lies within you, and the responsibility to change your future belongs to you and you alone…