Degree fulfillment of longtime wish for nontraditional students

Tim Riley
Tim Riley with his wife, Marcia

Jack Spring has served in the military, built houses, run a medical supply warehouse, worked in a log yard and driven a school bus. He’s been a salesman, handyman and purchasing agent. On Sunday, he will become a college graduate.

            Spring, of Bradford, is one of the first graduates of Pitt-Bradford's renewed petroleum technology program and one of a bevy of nontraditional students who graduate each year with new skills for new careers, including Tim Riley of Bradford.

            Riley now knows his mother was right when he was a young man working on his associate’s degree in Erie, partying at his cousin’s fraternity and generally not putting academics at the top of his priority list.

            “Mom was right. I never applied myself,” he said laughing. It’s easy for him to laugh now that he’ll be graduating from Pitt-Bradford on Sunday after only three years.

            A few years ago, he was working a vending route, and making a decent living at it, too, until the day he hurt his back.

            “My wife, Marcia, and I lost two-thirds of our income in 10 seconds,” he said.

            While Riley was laid up, the couple made a plan for him to return to school nearly 20 years after his first attempt.

            They sold their house and moved themselves and their two children into Riley’s parents’ 970-square-foot summer home.

            Riley started classes year round and treated school like a job, staying on campus from the time he dropped his children off at St. Bernard School in the morning until the time he picked them up.

            The thing he was most nervous about wasn’t academics, it was fitting in with the traditional-age students, whom he knows are young enough to be his children.

            “I was concerned when I first came back,” Riley said. “I give the younger students a lot of credit – they’re very accepting of me. I have more faith in today’s youth than I ever have before.”

            He said he made several close friends among the traditional-age students, one of whom sought his advice on a topic near to Riley’s heart – dropping out of college.

            “You don’t want to go out there without a degree,” he counseled.

            Even with a degree, it ain’t easy these days. The job market for graduates this year is tougher than it’s been in decades. Riley plans to tackle the Chartered Financial Analyst Examination this summer, the first step in a three-year process to become a chartered financial analyst.

            While investors are shaky now, Riley said, he believes that as people return to the market and investing, they’ll be seeking advice more than ever before.

            In the meantime, he’s sending out resumes, has two interviews scheduled and is taking part in Pitt-Bradford’s commencement Sunday, which he said he chose to do to set an example for his children.

            Spring knows a thing or two about setting an example. A single father who’s bounced around different jobs from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, his most recent has been driving a school bus.

            The thought of going back to school came to him when he was filling out paperwork for his daughter’s college career at Pitt-Bradford.

            “I knew I wasn’t going to drive a school bus for the rest of my life,” he said. “It was that or go work in Iraq,” a notion his daughter didn’t take a shine to.

            His desires, he said, are simple: “A decent, secure job. A house. A running vehicle. Maybe a little travel – I still want to see more of this world.”

            He sees his two-year petroleum technology degree as “a guaranteed job,” a chance to travel to one of the oil-producing regions of the world and to pursue his hobby – fossils.

            Spring likes to work outdoors. “I’ve worked outside in everything from minus 60 degrees to 110 degrees,” he said. “I’m always pickin’ stuff up. I’m just a big kid.”

            With fossil-hunting as a hobby, it’s no wonder the geology classes were his favorite. “Parts of the curriculum came really easy,” he said.

He hopes to work in geology or geophysics, but is “open to anything where I’m going to keep learning.”

He’s even started musing over earning his bachelor’s degree in geology or environmental studies.

He said, “This is also a lot just for me.”