His newly-minted BA in electronic engineering secured my friend and neighbor Oscar a coveted summer internship with Amazon — that is, unless an offer from the aerospace giant McDonnell steals him away to fulfill his childhood fantasy of building spaceships. Either way, it’s a promising start for a new college grad with a 4.0 GPA.
What makes the achievement even more remarkable is that Oscar is in his 50s. This is his second BA and his third career. And he thanks failure for making it all possible.
Oscar, who is from Colombia, spent his formative years inspired by the machinery of a steel mill company town, where the amenities were plentiful and the freedom to explore was unlimited. His academic and leadership skills made him a star at home and in the community.
I was the president of the school theater club, the captain of the swim team, and the provincial director of the Red Cross. I was the center of the universe.Oscar
Grew up too fast
When Oscar moved to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, for college, he quickly realized that being the solitary high-achiever — the big fish in a small pond — had not prepared him for the challenges of university life.
He hadn’t learned how to do the normal childhood things, like playing or hanging out with friends. And the rest of the students had gone to prestigious private schools, where they’d learned English well enough to handle the American engineering textbooks.
I was at the bottom of the food chain. I didn’t know shit about anything.Oscar
Academic failure and renewal
Distracted by weekend volunteer work that tapped into his leadership skills, Oscar soon found himself on academic probation. His mother interpreted the situation as the system’s failure and scraped the funds together to have Oscar study English in the United States. He stretched those limited funds to cover a full academic year and returned to Colombia with a command of English, a new networking ability, and renewed purpose.
Oscar sailed through the rest of his college work and graduated with a degree in electronic engineering.
Oscar’s first job out of college in Colombia was as a software engineer designing the systems that made ”point of sale” terminals work.
The sound of a terminal printing a receipt still makes me ridiculously happy.Oscar
However, when it came to innovation and money, engineering proved a dead end. The opportunity was in sales. Oscar pitched his skills to high tech companies, inventing Latin American sales jobs for himself with Colombian, then American, and finally, Chinese companies.
I went over to the dark side for 25 years.Oscar
He was a self-made success, supporting his wife and children in their new South Florida life.
Business failure, reinvention
But, as the tech business shifted to China, initiative and hard work could not overcome an inflexible business model and haphazard customer support half a world away.
When fifty percent of your success doesn’t depend on you, that’s an awful feeling.Oscar
Oscar toiled away against diminishing returns until, exhausted and defeated, he found himself unemployed at age 51.
Oscar had one special asset: his wife, Coni. She had seen her husband in his glory leading Red Cross volunteers in Colombia, and she suggested that he return to the work that had brought him so much satisfaction. He’d supported their family while she was home with their children, learning English, and developing a career, and now it was her turn to support him.
After a quarter century of non-stop travel and never-ending problems, the simplicity of helping a hurting person sounded like a balm. Oscar decided to become a paramedic.
Physical failure, reinvention
Oscar quickly secured his EMT certification, but being a paramedic in Florida requires getting firefighter certification as well. Oscar, still an accomplished athlete, welcomed the challenge, knowing that he would be ”the old man” of the class. He made it through six months of grueling training under the blistering tropical sun, wearing heavy gear and lugging even heavier equipment, as his body grew haggard and his skin pale from exhaustion. Only weeks from completing the certification, he felt his shoulder rip. Unable to use his arm, he was out.
But Oscar would not quit. After extensive physical therapy, against medical advice and knowing full well the risks, he reenlisted in the rigorous program. Six more exhausting months, and his body again failed him. He was done.
My physical abilities have always defined me. But here I was, for the first time in my life, unable to finish something I started.Oscar
Back to engineering dreams
As her husband nursed his physical and psychological wounds, Coni again saw a way forward: Oscar should continue his engineering education.
When Coni said I should go back to school, I said, “I can’t do that.” But she kept encouraging me. And so I did.Oscar
All those years of experience did not translate into current engineering knowledge, so Oscar found himself starting from scratch with challenging coursework. And he was twice the age of the other students.
But Coni was right. He is really good at this stuff, and the joy he has found in recovering his academic skills infuses his life. He is beloved by his classmates and respected by his professors, on tap for a prestigious internship, and back to being an early-morning regular in our community gym and swimming pool.
Thank God that I could not finish my paramedic training. It would never have been enough.Oscar
He and Coni (whose new swimming skills also inspired a recent post) can’t wait to see where this new trail will lead them. Neither can I.
It is never too late to live your dream!