“He had this sheepish look on his face as he was coming down the hall. I have seen that facial expression a couple of times before on other students so I had a gut level feeling that he was here to finish,” recalled John Haas, associate professor of communications studies.
Haas is speaking of Roy Brown, a student he had last seen in class a more than a decade ago, who had returned in the spring of 2010 to finish his degree.
Brown had left with just 39 hours standing between him and his graduation. He dropped out in 1999 to expand a family business.
“From our side of the desk, it is a killer. Your life experience is going to be so much better if you come back and finish this degree — especially when you are that close,” said Haas.
Haas has had thousands of students since the days Brown first sat in his class, but he remembered this particular student after working with him on a class project one Sunday afternoon.
“Roy was gracious enough to send me this really nice thank-you letter. In fact, I still have it. That really struck me that you just don’t think to thank people for extending themselves,” he said.
It was during that class that the two formed a relationship. Ironically it was in one of Haas’s classes that Brown used a project to ultimately shut the door on his college education.
“Roy had his eyes focused on another prize at that point. In my organizational communication class, he had to develop a business plan and that was the plan he used to start his family business,” said Haas.
Brown enrolled in classes the next semester but never returned.
“I was too embarrassed to tell him I was leaving,” said Brown.
Still, in his heart, Brown knew he had to come back.
“I’ve always wanted to do this, to come back. If I am fortunate enough to have children, how can I say you have to go to college when I didn’t?” said Brown. “When you don’t work for a year, you have a mortgage, a car payment; it’s obviously something you really want to do.”
When Brown made the decision to come back, he spoke first to Haas.
“It is an amazing feeling that someone feels sufficiently comfortable to talk to you when, in their eyes, they failed. So we talked for a bit, began mapping out a plan and I made clear to him that this is doable,” said Haas.
While Brown has sacrificed a lot, it is paying off. And he isn’t the only one who has benefited. Haas says Brown’s perspective has enriched the classroom experience for the younger students.
“When nontraditional students come back to class, they have some real-world lessons they can share with their classmates. Roy took a real leadership role in the class project and reinforced life lessons that you are going to play the way you practice,” said Haas.
This December, after first enrolling 14 years ago, Brown will finally graduate — thanks to his hard work and his professor who was there for him then, and has been there for him now. Brown says Haas has not only been helping him with classes, but he also meets with him weekly to keep him motivated and advise him on the job search.
“Dr. Haas touches everyone’s lives that he comes into contact with. He is my mentor. He would do anything to help me. He goes out of his way for people. You can tell that he genuinely cares,” shared Brown.
Brown credits Haas with his graduation and Haas cannot wait to see his student accept his long-awaited diploma.
“It’s like the prodigal returns. When someone who it seemed like got away returns and you were just kicking yourself, it is an incredible feeling. When I see him walking across that stage — that is going to be a great day.”