In Sight

“He Did Not Give Up”

How this 54-year-old custodian graduated from the college he cleaned at night.

by Colby Itkowitz
© 2016, THE WASHINGTON POST

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 last month, donning a black cap and gown, he stood with them not as a 54-yearold college custodian but as a fellow undergraduate.

It was 2008, the year of the economic downturn, when Mr. 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 the first warning 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 Mr. Vaudreuil starting taking undergraduate classes tuition free at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts by day, and cleaning up after his classmates by night.

“I felt productive,” he said, “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, Mr. Vaudreuil graduated on May 14 with a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering. On the top of his mortarboard he wrote, “OLD DOG HAS NEW TRICKS.”

At the graduation ceremony, the college president, Laurie A. Leshin, named Mr. 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.”

“It was really emotional, I’ve got to tell you,” he said of receiving his diploma. But he added, “I always imagined that it would feel great. It was actually better.”