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In May 2007, Michael Vaudreuil of Worcester, Massachusetts, felt a twinge of “impending doom.”
Vaudreuil, now 54, was self-employed as a plastering contractor, with two decades of successful entrepreneurship behind him. When the recession hit and the calls slowed down, he tried not to panic. When they stopped coming, he had no choice.
It was the kind of reverse rags-to-riches story that seems made for TV — but for Vaudreuil, it was an unfortunate reality. Vaudreuil declared bankruptcy, his car was repossessed, and his family moved from their beloved house into a tiny apartment.
Through a friend, Vaudreuil was able to land a custodial job at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), a local university. It was a steady paycheck with good benefits — but the pay was much less than Vaudreuil was used to, and the shame of cleaning the school by night was palpable.
“It was hard to look my kids in the eye,” he told TODAY. “I couldn’t tell them to work hard and they’d be successful … because I did that, and I lost.”
WPI offers free tuition for employees, and Vaudreuil began taking one class each semester — not as a means to an end, but as a distraction.
“I was angry. I was depressed. But as the semester went on, I thought, ‘Geez, this is taking my mind away from everything,’” said Vaudreuil. “When I got my first A, I thought, ‘This is really nice.’”
Still, he was hesitant to commit to the long road to a degree. “When you lose everything like that, you don’t trust your ambition,” he said. “You’re just trying to get through the day.”
But one class led to another — and three years later, Vaudreuil realized he was well on his way to a diploma. He selected mechanical engineering as his major, having gotten an associate degree in a similar field and knowing the job prospects were plentiful and lucrative.
At first, Vaudreuil felt awkward working alongside students 30 years his junior. But as they began to ask him about his story, he was shocked by the positive response. “I realized it was more my own judgment than anyone else’s,” he explained. “They thought what I was doing was really great.”
On May 14 — eight years after taking his first class at WPI — Vaudreuil walked across the stage to get his diploma. While he’s thrilled at the accomplishment, he still has his eyes on the prize. "I look forward to the day when I land that job," he said, adding that mentorship from recruiters has been a "wonderful surprise" as his story has spread.
Still, he understands the symbolic value of what he has achieved. “When people say my story inspires them, I know what that means on the other side," he said. "Sometimes, other people’s stories got me through. I'm glad I can be that person."