For much of the Class of 2018, the year 2012 was spent in high school.
But for one dinner jacket-clad Cougar who crossed the Cistern last month, 2012 included his first semester at the College.
“My girlfriend and I were trying last night to count how many semesters it’s taken me to get here,” says Jordan Vacchiano, a 30-year-old business administration major, on the eve of his graduation.
“We eventually gave up laughing,” he jokes.
Many students’ experiences make the phrase ‘four-year degree’ an oxymoron. Nationally a bachelor’s takes an average of 5.1 years. For some the journey is longer. Around 60 percent of students receive their diploma six years after matriculating, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Vacchiano is one of them.
But it’s what he’s been doing outside of class that’s of note. Since enrolling more than 2,000 days ago, he has worked full-time as a member of Ladder Company 4 at the Charleston Fire Department’s Coming Street firehouse.
Humble but direct, Vacchiano looks like a stock photo of the quintessential “firefighter” – exactly the sort of person you’d want climbing into your burning house when you need retrieving.
The Cincinnati native went to work fresh out of high school. He’s been stationed full-time at the fire house – one of Charleston’s busiest – since moving to the city in 2009.
In 2012, a colleague mentioned a small tuition-reimbursement program available for those in his line of work. Faced with taking out student loans to cover the rest, Vacchiano mulled the decision.
There was nothing explicit to be gained by pursuing a degree. He had a rewarding full-time job – the very thing most students go to college for. There was no promotion lying in wait. His family hadn’t been haranguing him to get one.
“No one would have complained if I never got my diploma or if I tried to and gave up somewhere down the line,” says Vacchiano. “I was at the College because I wanted to be there. I wanted it for myself.”
Like any prospective student – regardless of their age – everything about the experience was new to Vacchiano.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “Learning how to enroll was an adventure in itself.”
And as everyone knows, it only gets harder.
“School doesn’t come easy to me, period. I’m not embarrassed about that,” says Vacchiano. “I work on a firetruck. There is no [Microsoft] Excel.”
Several semesters Vacchiano was double-booked, working and going to school full-time. He’s never taken a semester off. Many of his six years at the College included summer sessions. All the while he was pulling 24-hour shifts at the fire house.
During his first year, Vacchiano calculated how long – at his current pace – it would take to get his degree.
“For a long time there was no light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “Graduation was too far away to even think about.”
Nearly every Cougar faces challenges both on campus and off. For Vacchiano a required business statistics course took him three attempts and an expensive private tutor to get through. A serious injury on the job once left him nearly bedridden during final exams.
What is the secret to his perseverance?
“Friends and family have been there for me,” he says. “But one of the main reasons I’ve made it is because of the guys here at my company. We call them ‘buddy shifts’.”
Here’s how Vacchiano explains it: “Say I have a night class from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. during one of my shifts. I have to find a guy willing to come back in to the station for me after he’s worked for 24-hours straight while I go off to class.”
Put another way, Vacchiano owes his colleagues six years’ worth of favors.
“They have had my back the entire time,” he says.
Asked if anything stood out in his college memories that surprised him, the new alumnus said Addlestone Library.
“It’s funny, I live in a small apartment downtown next to another firehouse. It’s constant sirens and the sounds of the street,” says Vacchiano. “I don’t have a table at my house or a desk. I get distracted easily. I would go to the library to clear my mind and really zone in on what I needed to do. It was cathartic for me. The library was my sanctuary.”
Vacchiano says he wouldn’t trade his journey across the Cistern. It’s been tough, but worth it. Now he’s taking a step back to assess his achievement.
“This is an overwhelming time for me,” he says. “Graduating at any age is a huge accomplishment. But graduating at 30, after it’s taken this long, is the biggest accomplishment of my life so far.”
His advice for Cougars traveling a longer path than others is simple.
“Stick with it. It’s not a cliché. Nothing that comes easy is meaningful.”