Fifty-four-year-old Michael Vaudreuil admits he's an old dog - it says so on his Oxford cap.
"I never dreamed a real moment like that would happen for me," Vaudreuil said during an interview at the Pratt & Whitney Hangar Museum in East Hartford, Connecticut. "This went beyond willpower. This was ... I can't explain the feeling I had. This drive – it just came from inside."
It was a long, distressing drive filled with roadblocks and heartache. One that started a decade ago when the former plastering contractor's business in Worcester, Massachusetts, crashed, a casualty of the boom-to-bust housing market.
"It was May 2007. I sat home for two weeks. And in May, traditionally, I'm not answering the phone because it's ringing off the hook, so I'm turning work away. I sat home, I knew that was a bad omen. I knew that it was signaling very bad things to come," he said.
By November of that year, Michael's business was gone but the bills he and his wife Joyce owed, however, kept coming and coming.
"The house was the next thing to go, we were able to get into an apartment and then we got this really hard knock on the door on Sunday night. They come to repossess my wife's van, which we owed money on," Vaudreuil said. "And when it rains, it pours. And in the middle of all of this, my mom, at 66 years old, passed away."
His wife Joyce sums up this time period in four simple words.
"It was real bad," she said from her Connecticut home.
In desperate need of good news, not to mention a steady paycheck, plus the desire to provide some value somewhere, Mike landed a custodial job at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, emptying trashcans and cleaning hallway floors and classrooms.
"It really, really destroyed me. I was completely ... what I once was, was no longer," he said. "I was completely destroyed. The only thing I had was this job at WPI. So I focused on that, because if I spent a lot of time focusing on other stuff, it really would spiral downhill quickly, emotionally and psychologically."
"His work ethic, even when times were the worst and he had horrible jobs - the things you do as a custodian are not very pleasant - but every single day he went to work," Joyce said.
But at WPI, Michael would look past dust and dirt and find opportunity. This self-proclaimed "old dog" would begin a new degree program in mechanical engineering, working out of and studying in the custodian's closet.
"One of these great benefits was tuition-free classes for employees," he continued. "And I thought, 'Well gee, it's a constructive way to spend time and perhaps get my mind away from all of this crap.' I was sitting in the classrooms with these 18 to 22-year olds during the day, and cleaning the restrooms and the classrooms at second shift at night. But I was kind of digging it, you know? Then I realized, if I keep this up, I'll have enough credits for a degree," Michael said, a confident look upon his face.
Eight years later, he did just that. Michael got his degree. That drive Michael talked about led him to this moment. Roadblocks were gone and now there were just possibilities.
"They [WPI staff] had seats for us in the front row," Joyce said, wiping away a tear. "I knew that I wasn't the only one that knew how special that was."
Michael also gets a little choked up as he recalls that unforgettable day walking across the stage to thunderous applause.
"But you know, walking – finally walking across the stage and getting that diploma, it put a lot of things to rest that needed to be put to rest from my past. And I finally felt up. Finally I was in control, I could do something, my efforts mattered and were recognized, it took a long time to get there," he said.
Joyce contacted WPI's public relations office to promote Michael's incredible story. As you might imagine, his tale took off, attracting international attention from the press. Companies started calling a few days after graduation but there was one in particular that struck Michael's fancy.
"That Tuesday afternoon, in a four-hour period, four different people from Pratt & Whitney contacted the school to try to get in touch with me. I thought to myself, 'This is a hot lead. Jump on this.'"
Michael is now settled in at the dependable engine company, working as a project engineer in Hot Section, part of the Process Certification Team.
"Pratt was one of those folks that saw that life experience I had and they valued that. And I value that in an employer," he said.
Joyce knows her husband is happy simply by his demeanor when he comes home from work.
"He's doing things he loves to do, he's challenged intellectually. He's respected for what he does," she said.
It is here where you would expect this story to end. All the troubles and pitfalls that life threw Michael and Joyce's way was over and life, finally, began anew. But suddenly there was a new obstacle to overcome, one that meant either life – or death.
"Two weeks into starting this job, we got a call Sunday night from my wife's doctor. Her biopsy is positive for invasive ductal carcinoma. She has breast cancer. And it was like, here it is – boom! You're high as a kite, there are all these great things going on and then – boom – you're knocked down," Michael said.
"Oh my God, the timing couldn't have been worse," Joyce said, rolling her eyes and showing a bit of frustration.
"When we started going through the surgery and the radiation treatments, all doubt was extinguished. Each and every one of my supervisors said, 'Take care of your family, take care of yourself.' They stood there like a family member. That is true," Michael said.
Joyce's cancer is in remission. They have a new house in Connecticut and a well-deserved new chance.
"We have two cats that have adopted us. We can kind of be Mike and Joyce again," Joyce said with a smile.
As much as he might tell you so, Michael's not old – just wise. Smart enough to know hard work means something, and that working here isn't an accident.
"I can't tell you what feeling that gives myself and my wife," he said. "We feel like this truly is the right place for me."