Michael Linhart took his time getting to Erie Insurance Arena, where he received a bachelor’s degree in general arts and sciences. He crossed the stage in May, 24 years after he first enrolled at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.
“It’s hard to describe how that felt,” Linhart, 42, said. “To be honest, I just tried to soak it all in.”
The Fairview resident first arrived at Penn State Behrend in 1991. The Kochel and Burke centers had not yet been built. Ohio and Almy halls were still woodlots.
Linhart had trouble adjusting to college life. After three semesters, his GPA had flat-lined at 1.5.
“I wasn’t ready for college,” he said. “I didn’t have the focus or the determination to stay with it. I needed to grow up.”
So he left. He worked the cash register at a grocery store and helped manage a Taco Bell. He watched his friends go on to better things.
“All my friends were getting these great 9-to-5 jobs,” he said. “They were getting married, having kids, and I was stuck, still living hand-to-mouth.”
In 1998, after five years away, he came back to campus. He tried to be more active: He joined the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity and the Returning Adult Student Organization. He volunteered as an orientation leader.
“He had a renewed sense of what he needed to do to be successful here,” said Biddy Brooks, director of the Office of Adult Learner Services. “He was committed to putting in the work. So it was hard to see him leave again.”
After two years of study, Linhart was offered an internship at a property management company. He worked as a leasing consultant, matching renters to apartments in a 132-unit complex. When his boss offered him a full-time position – good pay, and a path up the organizational ladder – he accepted, leaving college for a second time.
Before long, however, the work bored him. He joined the U.S. Navy Reserve, training as an aviation supply worker. He completed basic training on Sept. 5, 2001.
Six days later, the nation went to war.
“I ended up in the Persian Gulf, on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, thinking, ‘Yeah, this was a great plan,’” Linhart said.
When his tour ended, he returned to Erie, wanting to be close to family again. He met a woman and had two children. He’d raise them on his own, tending bar and working as a massage therapist.
He married again in 2012. When his new wife, Amy, encouraged him to complete his degree, Linhart once more found himself in Biddy Brooks’ office.
“He just persevered,” Brooks said. “He was so positive and outgoing, and always willing to talk with other adult students. He wanted to help them through situations he’d already had to work through.”
He kept his own doubts to himself. “I was a lot more apprehensive, coming back that third time,” Linhart said. “I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I stayed with it. I saw it as one of those lifetime badges you get: the ‘turn 40 and go back to college’ badge.”
It worked. He earned his final credits and was honored as the college’s top adult learner. The day of his last exam, he lingered on campus.
“This school has given me so much,” he said. “So many friends, so many experiences, so many nuggets of wisdom I can take with me anywhere. I just walked around and took it all in one more time.”
Before the commencement ceremony, he drove to the cemetery where his grandparents are buried. He placed an invitation in a zip-lock bag and tucked it between their headstones. Then he went home and taped a message to the top of his mortarboard: “I MADE IT.”