“The worst thing that happens to you may be the best thing for you if you don’t let it get the best of you.”                                 Will Rogers

 2009 – Worchester, Massachusetts: Michael Vaudreuil made the cold walk to his small apartment after his second shift job as a custodian at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the nation’s oldest engineering schools. It was the only job he could find. Michael had lost his company in the 2008 recession. Then he lost his home to foreclosure, and his car was repossessed.

Michael was angry, depressed and humiliated. He was ashamed to look his children in the eye. How could he tell them that if they worked hard they would be successful? The 46-year-old father of three didn’t even own a car. He had lost it all. He was a failure.

 Michael grew up in a Boston suburb. After high school, he earned a two-year associate degree in aeronautical technology from Boston’s Wentworth Institute of Technology. With the airline industry struggling at the time, he never used his degree and instead worked in construction to support his young wife, Joyce. In 1984, he started his own small company, Vaudreuil Plastering, which he owned it for 24 years until the recession. It was hard, dirty work, but it paid the bills.

In 2008, Michael was one of 2.6 million Americans who lost their jobs in the worst recession since the Great Depression. He had seen it coming in the fall of 2007 when building industry work stopped completely for three months, the first time in the history of Michael’s company. His business was gone by Christmas.

Michael tried to find work in construction, but there were no jobs available. A friend helped him get the custodial job at Worcester Poly where he made less than half of his previous salary. Because the university offered good benefits, Michael swallowed his pride, scrubbed floors and cleaned toilets to support his family. They got a small apartment near campus so he could walk to work. Michael figured the job would be temporary until he could find something better.

Meanwhile, Joyce updated her teaching certificate and began teaching school to help with expenses. Bored, Michael took advantage of the Worcester Poly’s employee-free tuition program and signed up for a course in psychology. It provided a distraction from his painful circumstances, and it helped to restore his confidence and hope.

Michael then signed up for several mechanical engineering prerequisite courses, hoping they might lead to a job opportunity. He had to drop Calculus I because his algebra was rusty. Instead of giving up, Michael used YouTube videos and taught himself algebra, trigonometry and calculus. He made an A in the four calculus courses required for engineering.

While his classmates studied in the library in the evenings, Michael cleaned the whiteboards, emptied the trash, and vacuumed the classrooms. After his shift, he slept four to five hours, then got up early and studied before heading to class.

Michael’s story spread among his classmates and the faculty as he progressed through the mechanical engineering curriculum. He feared his classmates would be embarrassed to have a janitor in their classes, but they considered him a hero. Although the employee-free tuition program limited students to one course per semester, Michael petitioned the admissions office and was approved to take two classes.

On Saturday, May 14, 2016, eight years after 54-year-old Michael Vaudreuil had begun working as a janitor at WPI, he graduated with a 3.65 grade point average in mechanical engineering. At graduation he wrote on the top of his mortar board: Old Dog has New Job, and when he walked across the stage, the audience rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.

The college custodian who cleaned classrooms on the night shift for eight years while he learned mechanical engineering during the day finally hung up his janitor’s mop for good. He began his second career as a project engineer with Pratt & Whitney, a world leader in the manufacture and service of aircraft engines.

Today, Michael is a senior engineer with the Accu Trak Tool Corporation in Cherry Valley, Massachusetts. “When I lost everything in my mid-forties, I figured my life was over. The engineering courses helped me realize that I could do something worthwhile with my life,” adds Michael.