Thoughts on Life & Leadership

A Junto Strategy Project

From Academic Probation to Doctorate: The Unlikely Story


A 1.94.

That was my GPA my first semester at Brigham Young University. That GPA enabled me to make it on a much more auspicious list than the dean’s list; academic probation.

Not exactly the start to my academic career that my parents were hoping for.

Fortunately, there are several more chapters to the story of my education journey. And if I had to sum that story up in one sentence, it would probably be this: It’s not how you start that matters, but rather how you finish.

I don’t think my freshman year was all that unique. A lot of people struggle with the transition to college. In fact, 30% of college freshman drop out each year. I was definitely on track to be one of those stats.

Fortunately for me, I was able to take an off-ramp from my formal education before I could do any more damage to that stellar 1.94 GPA. Three months after completing that first semester, I accepted 2-year assignment from my church to serve as a missionary in St. Petersburg, Russia, where I would be expected to learn Russian, develop leadership and relationship skills, and set aside all other aspects of my life for that 2-year timeframe.

From an educational standpoint, this non-traditional learning experience totally changed my educational paradigm. For the first time in my life, I was learning something because I wanted to learn it, not because I was receiving a grade for it. Initially, I really struggled with the Russian language. As my 1.94 GPA suggests, I hadn’t really learned how to be a good student. But I was bound and determined to master the language and to fulfill my ecclesiastical responsibilities honorably.

Two years later, I returned home a changed person in many, many ways – not the least of which was that I came back a much more focused and capable student.

Once again, I found myself in a fortunate situation. Because BYU was accustomed to having students get off the formal education highway, they also had a well-defined on-ramp for me to take to get back into school and continue my formal education.

When I graduated from BYU with my bachelors in 2000, I was convinced that I was done with school. It was time to get off the formal education highway again.

After a few years working in Silicon Valley, I realized that I wanted to take my career in a different direction. I did some initial applying for other types of jobs but was unable to find a way to bridge the gap from where I was to where I wanted to go professionally.

So I reluctantly began to look at returning to school to get an MBA. Even though I had completed an undergraduate degree and learned the Russian language, I was still highly intimidated by the idea of doing master’s level course work. I also knew that MBA school was highly competitive.

Once again, fortune smiled upon me. MBA schools generally expect students to have three to five years of work experience before entering into their programs, and they factor in the work experience into the acceptance process. So, with a decent but not amazing GMAT score, three years of good work experience and a respectable undergraduate GPA (I was able to get it much higher than that initial 1.94), I felt like I had a chance to make the cut.

I applied and was accepted to BYU’s MBA program, which at the time was a top 40 MBA program in the country. I was excited and anxious. The MBA was pretty much everything I expected it would be. It was challenging for me academically. It opened a whole new career path option. And it connected me with a completely different professional network.

When I finished my final test, I remember running around the house jumping up and down and yelling for joy. I was finally DONE with school.

For the next seven years, I enjoyed many great work experiences. I also experienced some work lows and even a period of extended unemployment. It was during this period of unemployment, that the terrifying idea of returning to school, once again, came into my mind. Even with a master’s degree under my belt, I still lacked confidence in my academic ability, and the prospect of having to deal with a dissertation scared the living daylights out of me.

Despite my efforts to block the thought of returning to school to get a doctorate, I realized that to get where I wanted to be professionally, I needed to bite the bullet, face my fears, and take the doctoral leap.

At the same time, it didn’t feel right to stop my consulting work. I needed an option that would allow me to continue to work but provide a robust and reputable doctoral program that would allow me to ride the education highway and work highway at the same time.

For the fourth time, fortune was on my side. I found a doctoral program through Pepperdine University that allowed for face-to-face sessions and online work. It was the perfect opportunity for me to get the best of both worlds.

For the next four years, I did my best to balance time between family, work, and school. The experience included a lot of late nights, moments of self-doubt, and lost weekends, but the learning and doors that were opened from the doctoral work made the sacrifices worth it.

Last week with my family watching, I walked across the “pretty green lawn” at Pepperdine to officially receive my doctoral degree.

As I sat there taking the experience in, I began to think, “How did I get here? How did a guy with a 1.94 GPA, who never really liked school, who never saw himself as a doctor, end up on this green lawn?”

There are a lot of answers to those questions, but here are three that came to my mind as I sat in the California sun that Saturday afternoon:

  1. You don’t have to do things all at once. I didn’t become Dr. Swim overnight. There were lots of stops and starts along the way (and even several detours). It’s easy to let the big goals overwhelm us. The secret is to remember that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass. You may not be able to scale the doctoral mountain (or whatever big goal or obstacle is in your path) in a day, but you can take that first step. And when the going gets tough…
  2. You keep putting one foot in front of the other. Some times the most important thing you can do is to just keep pushing ahead. There were days when I felt ‘done’; when I wanted to give up, and when fear was getting the best of me. There were some very distinct moments along this journey where it was all I could do to take one more step. But I kept putting one foot in front of the other and that’s when miracles start to happen. You wake up one day and find yourself on that pretty green lawn and realize…
  3. You can accomplish far more than you think you can!!!

One comment on “From Academic Probation to Doctorate: The Unlikely Story

  1. Carson Passey
    May 30, 2017

    Fantastic article. Thank you for sprouting hope and pizzazz in an otherwise mundane day.

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This entry was posted on May 25, 2017 by in Family, Leadership, Pepperdine, Personal Reflections and tagged , , , , , .

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