The Road Less Traveled

Pursuing higher education and whether to take on student loan debt are big decisions. Here’s one story about taking the long road, grappling with failure, and why it was worth it
May 18, 2021 Updated: May 18, 2021

My journey in higher education has taken me from community college dropout to assistant professor, making headlines after I paid off what would now amount to more than $200,000 in student debt after questioning whether academics would even factor into my path in life. Reflecting on what began almost 20 years ago, it’s hard for me to embrace how challenging the beginning of my journey was and how rewarding the process has become. As an 18-year-old high school graduate, I was unclear on where life would take me. I was accepted into a few four-year colleges, but I chose to stay local, full of confidence I would breeze through the classes at Tompkins Cortland Community College and be well on my way to millionaire status by the time I was 30 years old.

It wouldn’t be as easy as I had assumed. As a business administration major, I failed Accounting 101 twice. My first two years were filled with struggle. After my second year—despite some progress—I decided to drop out and take time away from college to figure out if academics was truly my path in life. I quit my retail job in upstate New York and drove across the country to live with my father in Utah. Spending six months working in a call center, I knew it was time to go back to finish the journey I had started two years ago. I drove back across the country to re-enroll at the local community college. With my grandparents funding the spring semester, I knew there was no option but to prove I was capable of academic success. After failing the first two years, I was able to fix my mistakes in less than a year and finished strong, taking 15 credits one semester, summer courses, and an 18-credit semester.

Stepping Into Labor Relations

Newly armed with confidence from my success, I decided to tackle a dream. I always wanted to open my own business, and—learning from people who had been extremely successful—I continued to pursue higher education. An internship was required to graduate with my business degree at Elmira College, and Kennedy Valve Manufacturing—a local foundry at which my grandfather spent his entire career as an electrician—offered me such an opportunity. It was my first experience in human relations (HR), and sitting in grievance and arbitration meetings as an intern, I knew labor relations was the field for me. The meetings consisted of employee terminations, disciplines, drug testing, and an investigation into employee theft. After the year-long internship I continued to work in HR. I spent time turning around an organization that had lost $20 million in one year and had the worst workers’ compensation rating worldwide out of 90,000 employers.

After three years in the field, I recognized, again, advanced education would be necessary to grow in my career: I applied and was accepted at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations, moving to Champaign, Illinois in 2010. During that time, I accepted an internship with General Electric Aviation because it guaranteed me a position at the bargaining table for union negotiations—labor relations are still what I enjoy to this day. But upon completion, I was not offered a position in the Human Resource Leadership Program: I was not deemed “polished” enough for the program. The statement, to this day, still motivates me to improve in the classroom and in the HR field. GE has since then called me back at least once a year, asking me to apply for full-time positions.

Having borrowed $64,000 to pay for my degree, I was totally focused and absolutely committed to academic success. I graduated with a master’s degree in 18 months—along with a debt load of $74,000. For the next two years, I worked as an HR manager, paying off that $74,000 in 23 months by living below my means and keeping interest accrual close to zero. It made headlines, and I was featured in Business Insider in 2014. Living on a monthly $1,000 budget—yes, that included insurance, utilities, and my cell phone bill—was not easy. Living with debt hanging over your head is not easy. I frequently asked myself why I set such a crazy goal to pay it off in two years. Most people laughed at me and said it was “impossible.” But I’ve done it—twice, and soon will for a third time.

Twists in the Road

Since I was 8 years old, it was my dream and passion to pursue law. After obtaining my master’s degree, I decided it was time to apply to law school with a focus on labor and employment law. I applied to 15 schools, left my jobs, and moved back upstate to wait for the acceptance letters to roll in. I had absolute confidence in being accepted into law school.

Six waitlists and nine rejection letters later, I was devastated when I didn’t get into a single one. I put all my eggs into one basket and had no secondary plan. Rejected and without a job, I honestly believed that everything I had worked for was for nothing. The education or work experience I had gained to that point seemed to matter; none of those accomplishments had any value. I gave up on future dreams of career and academic success. I purchased a brand-new Toyota Tacoma, and that fall I drove cross-country from upstate New York to visit family in Utah, and then to Las Vegas, wondering what to do with my life.

On the drive back, I made my decision: It was time to start my own business in HR consulting. My idea was met with doubts, and I was told I wouldn’t make money for five years. Eighteen months later, I was turning a profit. But those first 12 months were slow, and to keep myself busy, I decided to write a book: “How I killed $74,000 of Student Loans in 24-months.” I will be writing my third book during the summer of 2021.

The best piece of advice I can give today traces back to this period of my journey: Don’t expect the journey to be easy, and know that there will be trials and tribulations. You’ll learn more from mistakes and failure than any successes. Continue to move forward and remain positive, despite hard things might get. Stay focused on the end goal and work hard.

When I started my business, I also accepted a position developing curriculum, as well as another teaching position, and I applied to Syracuse University’s MBA program. The first class was a disaster. I was unprepared for the challenge, but set a goal to improve, despite a thought that my teaching career must have been over. It wasn’t, and I’ve been taking a non-credit certification prep class at Elmira College for the past six years, among other courses.

Last year, I paid off the $117,000 I borrowed for the MBA. This year, I finished my third master’s degree—not something I would have expected after dropping out of community college. It has been two decades of growth and reflection for me; two decades of being in college classes on and off. Now I bring those lessons into my classrooms. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and patience is absolutely crucial. I encourage all of my students to focus on the moment, set goals, and work toward accomplishing those goals. Hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and looking for opportunities have taken me from a dropout to Assistant Professor of Business Administration, and those are traits that can help any of us with anything—along with support. The family, friends, mentors, and professors who encouraged me to move forward when I had doubts deserve all the credit. Looking back to where I was in the beginning and how far I have come, I see that mine is the path less traveled. Far from being a detour, it’s what has provided me the opportunity to teach at a different level, incorporating my mistakes in higher education with real-world business decision making—and supporting my students along the way.

Matthew Burr strategic HR consultant, small business owner, mediator/fact-finder and Assistant Professor of Business Administration.