One’s Origins: A Journey From Adoption to Identity – Part Nine

Hi everyone! Summer break is over and time was well spent pursuing a couple other projects I am excited to share in the very near future.

We concluded Part Eight with me being towed out to the launch pad to jettison towards a career certain to usher me towards an existence replete with self-respect. I just had to keep following the yellow brick road that was being painted by others. Towards the end of Part Eight I mentioned that doors appeared to open up for me. When they did, I believed that a safe assumption was that I was meant to walk through them, so I did.

Just as the world was beginning to look like it had become my oyster, something happened that could have brought much of it crumbling down. I planned that Part Nine would be dedicated to sharing that story with you. Due to reasons I will not get into here, since drafting Part Nine I have come to understand that the timing for doing so is sub-optimal. I hope to revisit and share this part of the journey at a later date.

For now, let’s jump right back into things once I moved on from the reparative period working in the trades to an office services job at an engineering firm. In so doing, I transitioned from community college student taking general business administration courses to a night student at Villanova University enrolled in their College of Engineering.
I mentioned in Part Five that part of the reparative work included repairing a tear I made in my relationship with my Mom and Dad (as well as with many others) – that in no small part is attributable to my Mom’s aneurysm. I had returned to live with my parents after the fallout from a few years ago. Long before the term ‘boomerang kids’ found its way into our lexicon I was a boomerang kid early 90’s style. My boomeranging ways were the ‘prodigal son’ kind.

This prodigal son was about to move out into the world on his own for the second time. This time there was no tumult and there was no heartbreak. This was just a bird leaving the nest in which it hatched. But again, I ain’t done boomeranging just yet. We’ll get to that a little later.

Shortly after my promotion to supervisor, I found a three-bedroom apartment, the tenant of which was seeking a roommate. It was a half mile from the office and a short walk to the regional rail train station. The sixth stop after the station near my new residence was located on the Villanova campus. It was less than a fifteen-minute commute by train and a mere few hundred feet of walking in total to get from my front door to my classroom. Was it not safe to conclude that this was indeed the right road for me? All the right things were happening. I was developing a deep sense of faith that I was on the path intended for me all along. In there, ever so subtly, lies the flaw in my thinking. My faith played a passive role. Favorable outcomes did not occur because I had faith. Instead, I was acquiring faith because I was experiencing favorable outcomes. New job. New home. New school. I was ready to tackle the world. As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.”

During my tenure as supervisor for the office services department (circa 1993), the company was acquired by a much larger engineering firm with a global footprint. This was also about the time I had to make a decision about matriculation. Which discipline of engineering would I pursue? Recall from Part Eight that it was opportunity and my trust in the waves that carried me, and not any particular desire, that pushed me towards engineering – though math always fascinated me. Now I had to decide which kind. Well again, signs from the heavens, the universe, the Ouija Board (whichever best aligns with your world views) was about to tap me on the shoulder and whisper in my ear the decision I was meant to make about matriculation. (In the case of the Ouija Board the decision was simply being made for me.)

The company I worked for prior to the acquisition had only a few disciplines of engineering. In addition to the architectural department, there was Mechanical (HVAC and piping systems), Electrical, Fire Protection and Systems Integration. Our clients were other companies seeking engineering and design work on new buildings as well was repairs and rehabs on existing buildings. These buildings were sometimes just office buildings but more often they were huge research and development facilities in the Pharmaceuticals industry. For this reason, Mechanical seemed like decent choice. It’s broad and the Mechanical department comprised a decent portion of the entire company. From a practical standpoint Villanova offered Mechanical engineering as one of its programs in engineering.

The acquiring company, on the other hand, had a huge presence in the Petroleum industry. Here in the U.S. they had significant presence with the oil companies in the southern part of the country.  At Villanova, there were four engineering programs: Mechanical, Electrical, Chemical and Civil. I don’t know (even today) if there exist any accredited programs specifically called Petroleum engineering. There could well be. I was told by those with whom I conferred for advice that Chemical Engineering overlaps significantly with work in the Petroleum industry. The Ouija Board had revealed its answer. I was to matriculate to Chemical Engineering.

What I did not know at the time is that (at least then) among all undergraduate engineering programs – and among all undergraduate degrees in general – Chemical Engineering required (by no small margin) the greatest number of total credit hours. Remember I was taking night classes; six to eight credits per semester on average and I used the summers to take electives. This was going to take a while.

Shortly thereafter, I learned that many of the classes required for a Chemical Engineering degree were not offered at night. Uh oh! I was now committed to this path. After all, far be it for me to dismiss the wisdom of the Ouija Board. There was only one thing I could do. Resign. I submitted a letter of resignation from my job as supervisor for the office services staff. I had enjoyed tuition reimbursement for the last two years. But if I was going to get this degree done before my thirtieth birthday (a target I set back when I first started at the community college when my academic ambitions were lighter) I had to migrate to a full-time student status. Resigning meant no more tuition reimbursement. I would have to learn about and apply for every loan and grant available to me. And of course, no income made paying rent a bit challenging. I had one more boomerang move up my sleeve. At about the age of 26, I was moving back home with my Mom and Dad to finish my undergraduate work.

I was called into the office of the Regional President who was the person in charge of our entire office. My resignation letter went up two more levels above me and landed somehow on his desk. He congratulated me on the decisions I was making for the betterment of my life. He then asked if I could work around my new daytime classes. If I could manage around my courses such that I could still keep tabs on things with my staff and their responsibilities, the company wanted me to stay. I never expected that or even imagined it. I was truly humbled. As a part time employee, I would not qualify for tuition reimbursement, but they would continue to sponsor my health insurance coverage. Of course, it would also provide some income. I said yes and we shook hands. I walked out of his office feeling about as good about myself as I could ever remember having felt in a very long time.

About a year later, while I was still in the part time role of supervisor for the office services staff, I was invited to join a team in the company that had recently commenced a very large technology integration project to automate the manufacturing of a vaccine for a global pharmaceutical company. Philadelphia, the city nearest to me, is on the western fringes of what was referred to as (and probably still is) the ‘eastern pharmaceutical corridor’. Between Boston, MA and Washington, DC and especially in northern New Jersey, there is a huge presence of the biggest names in the pharmaceuticals industry.
Upon receiving this invitation, a conversation ensued that went something like this:

“I have no idea in the world what your group does or what this project is about.”
“No problem! We will teach you everything you’ll need to know.”
“Ok. You guys know I am a part time employee now because of daytime classes, right?”
“No problem!”
“Also, I am pursuing a Chemical Engineering degree, not programming or computer science.”
“No problem! One of the managers on the project is also a ChemE. Just keep working towards completion of your degree.”

Was that my Ouija Board talking to me again? Onward and upward I go. Literally upward in that this team was located on the second floor almost directly above the office services room where my team was located.

In much the same way as working for Bob (Part Six) in the trades refocused my life and provided me the opportunity to learn and become a contributing member of society, working with this team opened my eyes to how things come into being in the world that most people either take for granted or are simply not bothered to contemplate. I was going to work on a project designing what was at the time cutting edge technology to automate manufacturing of a product that would address life or death situations on a global scale. My Dear Ouija Board, where on earth are you taking me on this journey?

Before I continue, perhaps I might clarify that I am not much of a believer in Séances or Ouija Boards. My multiple uses of this ‘game’ is intended merely for humor and levity.
The best part was being invited to join this team on this project as my first foray into professional white-collar work was that it was a team that stood by one another rather than positioning against each other. I would later in my career become dreadfully too familiar with that lesser desirable team dynamic. For now, I could not have been more blessed with a greater group of individuals to shepherd me through this brand-new leg of my journey.

One thing that some of you might be wondering is how does this new opportunity square with Chemical Engineering. The answer is quite simple. It doesn’t. Of course, I would see common engineering lingo all over the place as I was now exposed to it literally night and day – and weekends too! Other than that, nada! My new role was to help create and support methods of testing programs and data that composed a rather elaborate relational database being built to support automated manufacturing. Not a chemical to be found anywhere. Which is a good thing. Not a bone in my body had a desire to become an expert on chemicals. I had matriculated a couple years earlier and was in no way going to turn around now. I had many credit hours already in the bank pertaining to Chemical Engineering and I was not to have them be for naught.

In Part Ten we’ll see what happens to a particular individual who never took any college entrance exams; was expelled from high school his senior year; had a brief run with substance use; quickly straightened himself out (aided by the near loss of the woman who adopted him); and is now a full time college student at a top ranked school in what is arguably one of the most demanding degrees offered at the undergraduate level. Next up is graduation and what follows. This ride ain’t done yet!

Thank you for your company as always. See you in Part Ten.

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