When Bill Butcka decided it was time to finish college 37 years after he started, he was more than a little nervous.
He remembers the day he walked in to his first class with college students and sat down in the front row.
“I was the first one there. In stroll all the 19-year-olds. I felt like a dinosaur,” he said.
Butcka, 55, was amazed by all the cellphone, laptops and other technology they carried in and concerned about how his classmates would react to him once class started and he joined in the discussion.
“I kind of worried about that in the back of my mind, that they’d be thinking ‘Hey, who is this guy. What does he know?’ “ he recalled. But when he spoke up in class, asked questions and shared his thoughts, he was relieved to find they were attentive and respectful.
“I think they realized that this guy might have something worth listening to. He might have something to say. I thought that was good, a good sign of maturity on their part,” he said.
Butcka, a project engineer at United Technologies Aerospace Systems, persevered for seven years, overcoming doubts, fears and long hours to earn his bachelor’s in University Studies with a concentration in Organization and Leadership Studies. This May, he finally graduated, fulfilling a life-long goal.
He was one of about 70 adults working each year toward a bachelor’s degree through the college’s University Studies adult education program.
Butcka’s story begins in Wallingford, where he grew up. He graduated from Sheehan High School and immediately enrolled in Naugatuck Community College in Waterbury, intent on becoming a mechanical engineer. He soon realized that college wasn’t for him.
“I decided that I wanted to enter the workforce. I left school and didn’t look back,” he said.
He joined a large corporation in Meriden, starting as a junior draftsman and working his way up to senior manufacturing engineer. Then he moved into the injection molding industry as a project manager where he worked for nearly 28 years. Along the way, he got married, moved to Colchester, and raised two sons.
About seven years ago, he landed a job as a project engineer at United Technologies Aerospace Systems in Windsor Locks. As one of the employee benefits, the company covers the cost of college courses. Butcka knew it was time to finish college.
“I had raised a family, sent both my boys to college and then decided it was Dad’s time,” he said.
Butcka found it challenging to work 45 to 55 hours or more a week at his job, and then attend class at night. In a typical day, he might get up at 5 a.m., commute to work, work a full day, and then go to class at 7:30 p.m. On weekends and in other pockets of spare time, he’d squeeze in online classes and study time.
“It was a constant battle getting things organized and in on time,” he said.
He found solace in the other adult students in his classes, many of who had remarkably similar stories to his own about dropping out of college when they were young.
“We’d bolster each other. We’d pick each other up. Somebody would be having a down day and we’d say, ‘hey, there’s going to be those times when you just want to throw in the towel give up.’ It happened many times to me,” he said.
But then he’d remember his personal goal to earn his bachelor’s.
“I’d just put one foot in front of each other again and just keep pushing on,” he said.
He said the support and advice he received from Karen Sullivan, the associate director of the University’s Center for Graduate and Adult Academic Studies, made the process seamless.
“Karen was my advisor during my tenure at UHart and was very responsive to any questions or issues that arose pertaining to curriculum,” he said.
While he enjoyed both online and in the classroom courses, Butcka preferred the classroom because he liked the spirited debate that often took place there.
“He’s very motivated,” Sullivan said. “Some students are very lost, but he was not one of them.”
Butcka has nothing but praise for the University faculty.
“Every single professor that I had was fantastic,” he said. “The course structures were very good. The professors were readily available for questions, even online,” he said.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I would highly recommend it for adults to and younger people to come here.”