Read A Marine goes to college (Part 1) here.

Being back in school took some getting used to, but not in many of the ways I anticipated.

My first attempt at going to college ended before it began.  I was a high school football player with aspirations that didn’t extend further than just finding a way to play ball in college.  When I got hurt my senior year, my opportunities to play college football evaporated, and like any level-headed teenage guy, I responded by packing some things and running away to Alaska for a month.

By the beginning of the next semester, I chose to start classes at a college close to my home.  They’d offered me a scholarship so my family could afford it, I won some writing awards, and for a brief stint, it seemed like something I could do… then my father got into some trouble with the law.

There are a lot of things my father did that I won’t defend him for.  He’s had a difficult road, and found himself a good deal of success despite that, but he carried the weight of his poor choices with him – and behind closed doors, he brought that weight down on my mother, brother and me.  Near the end of my first semester, he was accused of mishandling funds inside the veterans nursing home he ran – and although it was eventually proven that he hadn’t – by that time we had already lost our house, my mother and brothers had left, and I found myself living alone with a man I hadn’t really spoken to in years.  Soon, my high school sweetheart, reeling from the political fallout of small-town scandals, decided to break things off.  All of a sudden, it was just my dad, me, and a genetic predisposition for drinking problems alone in our little house full of self-pity; and college once again fell by the wayside.

I eventually started classes again at a community college in northwestern Connecticut, until I was pulled out of class by administration one day because my financial aid had fallen through.  Demoralized, and convinced college just wasn’t for me, I walked away yet again, and took a job slinging parts for a local racing company.

Nick Coffman: Why I enlisted in the Marine Corps

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Years later, while on active duty, I managed to barely complete an associate’s degree in business over the span of four or five years.  My poor grades and extended time table could be blamed on operational tempo, TAD trips and deployment, but in my mind, it was just further proof that college wasn’t for me.

But suddenly there I sat: creeping up on thirty and surrounded by teenaged Women’s Studies majors.  In a respectable four-year institution, with no one to blame but myself if I were to fail, I found myself all out of excuses – and I’d be damned if a little man-hating would scare me away this time.

To my surprise though, college was completely different than I’d imagined this time.  Without worrying about the social pressures of being eighteen and away from home for the first time, or about administration throwing me out for a lack of funds, or my family being… well… as crazy as my family is, I found myself thriving.  I genuinely enjoyed learning, and devoting my time to improving myself.

That isn’t to say that there weren’t challenges.  My wife and I were perpetually broke – we sold my beloved Mustang and I started driving a cheap four-cylinder car that had almost all of the parts a car should (no rear-view mirror, air conditioner or front bumper, but what good are they anyhow?).  The two of us, accustomed to running around the globe in search of adventure, instead moved out of our house and into a cheaper place in a rougher neighborhood, and couldn’t afford a trip to Applebees, let alone another flight to Rome.  I made few friends at school – it just wasn’t what I was there for – but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel somehow more restricted than I had on active duty.

Neither of my brothers went to college, and both built great lives for themselves.  My father didn’t even get his GED until he joined the army.  Although he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in his thirties, college wasn’t particularly emphasized in my house growing up.  My wife’s family is comprised of the hardest working construction workers and small business owners you’re ever likely to meet… but there wasn’t a diploma to be found between them either.  To most of our family, this college endeavor was a great thing, sure, but not particularly important.

The worst of it all, however, was the embarrassment.  I felt out of place at school, but ten times more uncomfortable among people my own age.  I’d attend work functions with my wife, and as her BMW-driving coworkers told me about themselves and asked me to reciprocate, I’d always have to respond with, “well… I’m in school, so I’ve only got a part time job right now…” or, “well, I was in the Marines, but I’m not really in a career quite yet…”  I’d spent all that time fancying myself a world traveler, a fighter, an athlete… but as I looked at the guy that sat in the cubicle across from my wife, wearing a watch that cost the same as my beat-up car, with a Mercedes key chain on the desk and gel slicked hair, I wished I could have just been normal.  I wished I could have given my wife that life, instead of another two years of eating Ramen and having to explain away her dead-beat husband.

A big part of me longed to quit again, to take the GS position I was offered with the Navy, to start buying my wife pretty things and to scratch the travel itch she and I both start to get after staying in one place for too long… but the Marine Corps had taught me a lot of things… and one of the biggest lessons was an appreciation for the struggle – an understanding that the greatest accomplishments come with the highest prices of admission.  Before the Marine Corps, I was the kind of guy that would run off because I couldn’t play football, or that could be deterred by a problem with my financial aid status – but that punk kid withered away and died under the weight of responsibility. The challenges I had faced as a Marine made giving up over being sad, or feeling constrained, seem downright laughable.

Despite my reservations, I loved the pursuit of knowledge.  My real life may have been riddled with doubt, but the time I spent in the library reading about communications theory, or writing papers about American history, or just debating elements of our assignments with my friends, left me with a sense that what I was doing was the right path for me.  It was that realization that I loved school that came as the biggest surprise.  I just barely graduated high school.  I just barely finished my associate’s degree.

But there, in the library of Framingham State University, I found myself suddenly excelling – eventually going on to graduate Summa Cum Laude, and then finishing my master’s with just shy of a 4.0 GPA.  Those grades aren’t a testament to how smart I am; as I’ve mentioned a dozen times before, I’m rarely the smartest guy in the room, but they do speak to the shift that occurred deep within me at some point between running away to Alaska in 2003 and coming home from the Marines in 2012.

A Marine goes to college (Part 3): Ohhh, the drinking...

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But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before I could be awarded those decorative pieces of paper, I had to overcome some other kinds of obstacles… like surviving the social hellscape of being a veteran at a liberal arts college, being ten years older than the next oldest guy in the room, and learning how to drink in the dorms all over again.

But that’s a story for another time.

To be continued in Part III